Classes, Hinges and Socialist Emancipation: South Africa and Beyond

Friday, 20 July 2018: 08:50
Oral Presentation
Peter ALEXANDER, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Carin RUNCIMAN, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Trevor NGWANE, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
For Erik Olin Wright, definitions of class are embedded in distinct theoretical approaches and anchored in different kinds of question. For us, like him, the principle anchors are ‘emancipation’ and ‘class antagonism’. Drawing on South African perspectives we attempt to bridge a gap in his argument concerning the unemployed, who, at best, fit awkwardly in analysis stemming from US positioning and problematics. Three claims are made. (1) It is necessary to add and integrate an account of reproduction and consumption to one based on production and exploitation. (2) Workers and the jobless have different relations to the means of protest. (3) These two social forces are like two wings of a hinge that are linked to a common core of class interest. The hinge can be wide open, representing an absence of unity, or the wings can come closer, and at key moments in history they touch, creating possibilities for socialist transformation.

Our approach led us to emphasise a third of Wright’s anchors, ‘subjective location’. Early insights benefitted from empirical research in Soweto, which he encouraged. This paper has been enriched by recent work on South Africa’s ‘rebellion of the poor’, greater historical depth, and engagement with recent literature on uprisings around the world. We argue, first, that aspects of our account have relevance elsewhere, notably where a large part of the population is unemployed or underemployed. Secondly, in South Africa, as elsewhere, after a period when the hinge was closing there has been a reversal of late. Dynamics vary, but especially in South Africa, the importance of subjectivity, especially political and organisational issues, comes clearly into view.