New York University sociologist Vivek Chibber:
Workers resist exploitation individually rather than collectively
As part of a more extensive interview on his book ‘The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn’ (Harvard University Press, 2022), we asked Vivek Chibber, professor of sociology at New York University, about his (re)reading of Marx’s theory on workers’ predicament in a capitalist system. The whole interview will be soon published by Iran Daily.
IRAN DAILY: Let’s go to start with the class matrix. What is this thing that, according to your account, defines the inner machinations of capitalism?
VIVEK CHIBBER: What the book is intended to show that when it comes to capitalism, its basic dynamics come from its class structure; and that the class structure has its properties without having to rely on any particular socialization or cultural training or cultural orientation on the part of its incumbents. In other words, regardless of whether you’re a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or follower of any other religion, regardless of how you’ve been socialized, regardless of what your cultural training has been, if you are placed in a capitalist class structure, you will respond in very predictable and very consistent ways. And so the system is able to work across the world, regardless of culture, because the signals and the demands that it makes on people don’t rely on any particular aspect of the cultures that people have been socialized into. It rather relies on certain universal needs and universal drives that people have. We call this materialism.
Okay, so if your argument is that the people “respond in very predictable ways” when they are put into a capitalist system, why is it that the Marxist theory has been unable to predict the future? Or actually it made some predictions, but they didn’t come through?
That’s a very good question. My argument in the book is that Marxists wrongly understood their own theory. So they made predictions that were based on a misunderstanding of the theory, rather than an accurate understanding. An accurate understanding of the theory predicts that revolutions and worker uprisings will actually be very rare and very unusual. And that it’s in very unusual circumstances that you should expect to find collective action and collective organizing by workers. What the book tries to show is that Marx was right in insisting that workers in capitalism are exploited. He was also right in suggesting that workers will resist their exploitation. Marxists wrongly took this to mean that when they resist their exploitation, workers will do so collectively. In fact, what the theory shows is that it’s more rational for them to resist individually and not collectively. So, Marx was right in predicting the fact of resistance. But his followers were wrong in thinking about the form of that resistance, that it would be collective rather than individual. And once workers resist individually, they will almost always lose and, therefore, the system will be stable and not overthrown