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Is class a difference that makes a difference?

Is class a difference that
makes a difference?

Diana eoole

The title of my paper surely sounds strange.’ Statistics
abound to reveal the intransigence and even enhancement of class differences across the industrialized world.

There are few, if any, distinctions whose differential
effects have been better recorded or empirically verified.

So, at first sight, it would seem naIve even to be asking
whether class makes a difference. Reading currently
fashionable literature about difference, however, one
might be forgiven for wondering about the significance
of class because if it is even mentioned in the capacious
lists of significant differences, it is rarely discussed
further. Indeed much of my title’s awkwardness arises
from the fact that we are unaccustomed to addressing
questions of class in the language of difference. It seems
at best ironic. It is, then, in the context of this hiatus that
I want to raise some questions about class in relation to
what I shall call discourses of difference. The first part of
my paper will sketch out these two terms as I shall be
using them; the second will consider what happens when
the former is articulated in terms of the latter.

I want to begin by defining class as neutrally as possible.

In particular, I do not want to start by situating myself on
a Marxist or post-Marxist terrain 2 because of all the
theoretical baggage this carries. Provisionally, then, I
define class in the following way: Class refers primarily
to material differences between groups ofpersons, where
these differences are stable over time and reproduced
within a group whose membership is also relatively
stable (i.e. it is not like a bus, a container for different
individuals who simply pass through it). Material
differences include measurable indices that can be
summarized as life chances (income and wealth, job
security, mortality rates etc.). In addition, although less
crucially, these material differences sometimes
correspond with cultural differences: values,
perspectives, practices, self-identity. But the major
phenomenon with which I want to associate class is that
of structured economic inequality.

This is the sort of definition that sociologists used to give,
as for example in a standard introductory textbook
published in 1981, which explained that (in Britain at
opportunIties for health, long life, security,
educational success, fulfilment at work and
political influence are all unequally distributed in
systematic ways. Values and patterns of behaviour
are equally affected: for example, not only can
social position strongly predict voting behaviour
but also, some would claim, whether the person
prefers to make love in the dark or with the light
Few would confidently ascribe such predictive power
and homogeneity to class today; yet, so far as its material
indicators are concerned, these have actually become
more pronounced over the past fifteen years or S04 – that
is, during the period in which class has been discursively
eclipsed in favour of difference. The recently published
Rowntree Inquiry into Wealth and Income revealed a
particularly marked widening of the gap between rich
and poor in Britain, where since 1977 the proportion of
the population with less than half the average income has
trebled. Similar, if somewhat less dramatic, trends are
also apparent in other developed countries.

Given this rather stark example of difference, how is
it then to be articulated? This is the central question I
want to address. For while on the one hand Marxist and
sociological accounts seem anachronistic, on the other it
is far from clear that the discourses of difference which
are currently hegemonic in debates about diversity have
the discursive resources to convey this stubborn and
systematic economic division.

If class is primarily about economic inequality, then
how are class divisions to be thought of? This is
important, given the emphasis on boundaries and their
porosity or policing by discourses of difference. The
binary and antagonistic opposition favoured by Marxists,
between proletariat and bourgeoisie, has long been

Radical Philosophy 77 (May/June1996)


replaced in non-Marxist literature by more fragmented
measures, based for example on type of work done,
according to which populations are divided into A, B,
Cl, C 2, D and E. Interestingly, the latter form of measure
is favoured by researchers trying to establish class-based
attitudes (that is, cultural diversity), such as voting or
product preference. It distributes the population
according to sheer difference without carrying political
implications of conflict or hierarchy. This would also
seem to be true of the fluidity favoured by postmodernists, which appears conducive to liberal claims
that, rather than classes, there is a complex movement of
mobile individuals.

Yet this would be to deny both empirical evidence of
relatively stable patterns of inequality and a certain level of
clotting that discourses of difference require, since they are
also concerned about identity and its representation. If it is
to be a politically significant difference, then, class needs
to include some notion of both inertia and inequality. This
criterion is met by social scientists (who still tend to believe
that the real can be represented objectively), who are
increasingly conveying class distinction in terms of an
opposition between rich and poor, or the ‘two-thirds/onethird’ society as Britain is sometimes called. 5 Despite the
return to a binary formula, however, this is no dialectical
schema and so, unlike Marxism, it inscribes no particular
politics within it.

Given that difference is associated with politically
radical demands against the status quo, it can be assumed
for the purposes of this article that two classes have a
special claim to being recognized as bearing significant
difference: the underclass which is summoned as the onethird, or poor, above, and the working class as heir to
anti-capitalist struggles for equality and non-exploitative
labour. The growth of an underclass is probably the most
marked development in recent times, and this has
coincided with a decline in the traditional working class.

The underclass manifests itself as a motley group,
but its diverse membership can be identified through its
unemployment, or lack of secure employment, and the
symptoms thereof. It includes significant numbers of
single parents, pensioners, the disabled, ex-service
personnel, young people, and certain ethnic minorities.

Here poverty, with its deficit of objective life chances,
cuts across other differences to render the underclass a
marginalized and virtually disenfranchised group.

Although the distinction between rich and poor is not
equally distributed across other differences such as
gender or race, it differentiates massively within them.

This distinction between an underclass and the rest of
society, stratified according to productive employment
or its lack, is to be distinguished from previous divisions


between working and middle class which depended on a
person’s role within production, although income levels
were obviously involved there too. In fact at its lower
levels, the working class today shades into the underclass
– precisely where its working becomes unreliable or
yields wages below a certain level. Theoretically,
however, the working class, with its legacy of class
struggle and organized political and economic activity,
carries quite different connotations from the underclass.

Its inequality and difference would almost certainly be
articulated differently.

The eclipse of class
Given all the evidence of significant economic
differences, which I am summarizing under the term
‘class’ , why have these been marginalized within recent
discourses of difference? By way of an introduction to
the latter, I will suggest some reasons for this discursive
eclipse. 6
First, a range of economic and technological
developments which are loosely summarized as postFordist or late capitalist has resulted in a fragmentation
of traditional classes in terms of working conditions,
incomes and attitudes. Much of this development is only
uneven and prefigurative, but it has undoubtedly had a
profound effect on what was identified, and often
exhibited itself, as a relatively uniform working class
under Fordism. Thus there appears to be a de jaGto
splintering of class, as well as the growth of a marginal,
almost pre-modern workforce which moves in and out of
the underclass. At the same time, radical politics has
itself diversified as subaltern groups have moved onto
the scene. All these changes might be summarized as
postmodern. They have tended to coincide with a more
market-oriented politics, which has also promoted the
discursive eclipse of class for ideological reasons,
although it is unclear how far postmodernization serves
as the cause or effect of this rightward turn.

Postmodernization has been accompanied by
evidence that economic position no longer carries much
political correspondence, rendering it less significant so
far as political change and political theory are concerned.

As Stuart Hall writes, ‘any simple correspondence
between “the political” and “the economic” is exactly
what has now disintegrated – practically and
theoretically. This has had the effect of throwing the
language of politics more over to the cultural side of the
equation. ’71t is this cultural bias that informs most recent
debate about difference and which in itself renders class
difficult to include.

Changes in the real, then, have been accompanied by
discursive shifts. With the fracturing of class, interest has

shifted to other schisms, notably race and gender,
followed by a whole range of lifestyle and identity
diversities, all of which lend themselves to the more
cultural focus. Moreover, equality has itself become
suspect in so far as it is associated with sameness and
imperialistic inclusion.

Discursive change has, in turn, coincided with the
decline of Marxism, that instrument of class analysis and
practice par excellence. At least part of this decline has
been due to assaults from poststructuralism, which
accuses it of offering a reductionist and economistic
account of social stratification and a class analysis
suffused with a grand-narrative privileging of one class.

While it is true that recent class fracturings would render
such an account problematic anyway, it is the uniform
and oppositional terminology of class that is accused of
suppressing difference. Because discourses of difference
have tended to constitute themselves through opposition
to Marxism, however, their exponents have often gone
out of their way to sideline class and to emphasize the
novelty of their own approach and the differences they
privilege. 8
But while this strategy is historically understandable,
is it not in danger of going too far in the other direction?

Whatever the lacunae of Marxism, one consequence of
its fall from grace has been that criticisms of it have
tended to spill over into suspicions about class as such.

For if Marxist analysis tended to reduce all difference to
class difference, is there not something about class itself,
and the very power of its social divisiveness, that tends
to overwhelm other differences? The decentring of class,
and of the materialist approach it involved, means,
however, that economic differences have become largely
invisible, or at least mute or marginal, in recent
discourses of difference. 9 I will now turn to these, to ask
whether they must necessarily marginalize class and if
they are even capable of representing it. It might, after
all, be feasible simply to include economic disparities
among the differences they discuss just by shifting the
emphasis. But it is equally possible that there is a logic at
work (a ‘regime of truth’) within them that misrepresents,
or silences, this particular social fracture.

Discourses of difference
A variety of contemporary discourses could be placed
under this heading: communitarian, radical or discursive
democratic, poststructuralist and postmodern, as well as
the more specific difference theories such as feminism or
postcolonialism. Difference is here a heavily politicized
term, since for all of them it implies power relations and
strategies for change. They raise timely questions
concerning the representation, citizenship and ethics of

diverse populations which must both coexist yet which
are also increasingly resistant to the universalistic values
and practices of the liberal state. But they also recognize
that this politics involves power relations that circulate
within culture where identities are forged.

At this stage, although as something of an aside, I
want to raise some points concerning the broadly
Habermasian solution to difference which has gained the
support of many political theorists. In discursive
democracy, differences are brought into the public sphere
in order to negotiate agreed-upon procedures for
establishing laws and policies, which will in turn reflect
the differences that feed in through democratic
discussion as long as this is fair, equal and undistorted by
power. Tolerant, open debate, where others’ differences
are respected, and where compromises, if not consensus,
are reached, has become a widespread ideal as a means
of fines sing difference. At one end of the spectrum this
might incline towards a Rortyan model of public
universals and private differences, but at the other it
extends to a pluralism of negotiating and citizenship
styles themselves.

However, because of the focus on cultural differences
here, economic inequalities tend to be categorized as
rights issues and thereby subsumed under a more
traditional liberal universalism (such as that of Rawls).

Welfare entitlements and social justice are wielded as if
class were only a distributional question and one whose
main struggles lie anyway in the past. There is a certain
irony here, since one must surely entertain some
scepticism regarding the liberal state’s willingness or
ability to respond to this particular difference more than
any other. But the result is that economic inequality is
bracketed out of discussions of difference. It may, of
course, be that this is a unique kind of difference, but in
that case a new discourse of political economy is surely
required; one which would both respond to changes in
class composition and accord the same level of attention
to the reproduction of economically differentiated
groupings, as discourses of difference do to the
production of other identities and differences. In
Habermasian terms, this would involve incursions deep
into the steering media, those delinguistified systems
where communicative action is precluded along with
discursive resolutions.

But even if class were only one difference among
others, it is hard to see how this particular difference
would fit into the strategies and demands associated with
cultural diversity, as for example when gender or
ethnicity are invoked as alternative modes of negotiation
because they speak in ‘a different voice’. Moreover,
because there are no theoretical resources here for


dealing with economic inequality at a structural level, it
is difficult to see how the requisite free and equal
discussion could occur. It may be a rather tedious point
to make, but poverty robs groups of the economic and
cultural capital needed for participation. And today,
fragmentation is anyway more likely than solidarity to
be a symptom of poverty, resulting in a lack of identity
or shared conception of needs to be represented. Group,
as well as discursive, representation of inequality thus
remains a major challenge to radical democracy. Finally,
while a focus on cultural diversity is conducive to a drift
from politics to ethics, class surely disrupts this trend.

With the exception of communitarianism (which has
its own logic of class exclusion), I will collect what I
have called discourses of difference together according
to the assumption that they are all informed in some way
by poststructuralist models and ideas. These are very
often attenuated and may receive little explicit
acknowledgement, but a common language of
difference, otherness and marginality testifies to what I
would call a postmodern imaginary, which informs
current debate. It is this framework that might or might
not allow for the articulation of class as a difference that
makes a difference. 10
What, then, are the main landmarks within this
discourse? I have identified six.

1. Identity and difference
The most important question today, Foucault suggests,
is ‘who are we?’ 11 To answer this question is to lay claim
to some identity, and to do this is to assert difference
from others. There are various permutations at work here.

Is identity a source of empowerment or of oppression?

According to the former, identities are politically
mobilized when they seek recognition and a voice (as
women, for example, sought visibility and political
representation); according to the latter, identities are
constructed but typically imposed as a power strategy. In
this second case they must be rejected or radically
transformed (as feminists might reject the signifier
‘woman’, or the idea of ‘all women’, as patriarchal
classifications). Although it might be claimed that an
authentic identity is being misrecognized, this courts an
unpopular essentialism, and a more typically postmodern
move is to advertise the autonomous reconstruction of
identity, one alive to its own internal diversity.

2. The Other and the marginalized
Here, identity means oppression rather than empowerment, in so far as the Other is constructed precisely to
control and exclude groups (as lacking) as well as to
reinforce the centre’s identity. Edward Said’s work on
Orientalism is a good example of how this operates. 12


Foucault defines the Other as ‘that which, for a given
culture, is at once interior and foreign, therefore to be
excluded (so as to exorcize the interior danger) but by
being shut away (in order to reduce its otherness).’ 131t is
a category intrinsically suffused with power, which
imposes a binary structure on complex differences, the
symptoms of which include marginalization and loss of
autonomy for those designated Other.

3. Values: tolerance, respect, celebration
Whether identity is associated with empowerment or
oppression, it is generally agreed that identities which
are too strong or rigid endanger the political and cultural
process, and this in turn implies certain values. Liberal
values like tolerance and respect l4 have especially
revived in popUlarity, as congenial orientations that will
massage the frictions between differences. In a more
postmodern vein, theorists like Stephen White commend
us positively to celebrate difference and to ‘foster
otherness’ Y He draws here on feminist orientations to
caring and nurturing; to listening to concrete others.

What more generally underpins antipathy to dogmatism
is, however, a fourth aspect of the discourses of

4. Openness/closure
If any value system governs these discourses, it is this,
where openness is good and closure bad. Closed
identities suggest a rigid distinction between self and

other that implies hierarchy, marginalization and
violence as well as constraint and repression. While some
identity must be constructed if it is to claim cultural
recognition or political representation, postmodernists
always favour boundaries that are fluid and shifting, such
that identities remain flexible and plural and their
frontiers are readily traversed (such that transgression of
rigid boundaries becomes the subversive act par
excellence). Deferral and provisionality seem more
appropriate than tolerance and respect, because they
drive groups into circulation. This leads to two further
characteristics of discourses of difference.

s. Differance
The model that underpins many of the assumptions about
difference is a Derridean – that is, linguistic – one of
differance. According to this, there are no positive
identities or meanings, but only shifting, open and
provisional nodules of unstable sense, caught in a restless
play of signifiers in which identity is negatively inscribed
through its relations with what it is not. Diverse
identities, accordingly, are to be understood as structured
like a language, and groups would ideally emulate this

Of course, if the analogy applied completely, there


would be no identities or recognizable differences. But
just as we are condemned to communicate in a
metaphysical symbolic that gives the illusion of stable
meaning, such that glimpses and strategies of differance
only subvert it by forcing recognition of the instability of
meaning, so groups are obliged to claim identities; but,
ideally, they do so in recognition of their open and
provisional nature. As Iris Young has written of her ideal:

‘groups do not stand in relationships of inclusion and
exclusion, but overlap and intermingle without becoming
homogeneous.’ 16 Although discourses of difference
sometimes condemn class analysis for aspiring to
transcend difference in classlessness, free-flowing
differences arguably move in a similar direction, if via
another route (discursive and deconstructive rather than
dialectical and emancipatory).

6. The discursive and the real
It is perhaps the most typical characteristic of
poststructuralism that it claims meaning as constructed
and not objectively given. That is, although the existence
of things is independent of language, they have meaning
only in so far as they are discursively apprehended, this
being the level at which power, but also empowerment,
most significantly operates. This is why there is a
rejection of political claims concerning some objective
identity, or set of ‘real needs’, or privileged difference,
which only require adequate representation, a bringing
to truth. Not all discourses of difference subscribe to this
ontology, but once the emphasis is on diversity it has a
way of insinuating itself. Laclau and Mouffe illustrate
this position well when they write that,

1. Identity and difference
In so far as classes are defined in primarily economic
terms, it follows that they do not define their struggles as
cultural. If they seek a voice, it is to articulate their
interests effectively and not to insinuate a novel style
into debate. Even if economic hardship does not preclude
entry into the public sphere, being given an open-minded
hearing by others willing to recognize the particularity
of its voice is hardly an efficacious strategy. For classes
are not life-forms requesting recognition, and their
demands are not reducible to ethics. Members do not ask
‘who are we?’ first, or even at all.

The underclass nevertheless exhibits a powerful
difference in that its members are excluded in varying
degrees from almost all the economic, political and
cultural activity of their society. However, it is more
problematic to ascribe an identity to it, since one of its
distinctive marks is precisely a dearth of any shared
qualities that might yield, or be celebrated as, a group
identity. This is not to deny that other identities, such as
religious or familial ties, might remain strong in some
cases, but by its nature this is a class largely composed of
rootless, alienated individuals who are not plugged into
a shared culture, and certainly not one endemic to the
underclass as such. Their major preoccupations must lie
in survival; and, beyond this, what they share – and what
identifies them as members of a class – is only the
economic plight that statistics and everyday life
monotonously reproduce.

In terms of demanding recognition for an authentic
but suppressed identity,18 the underclass is thus a nonstarter. It cannot feature in the discourses that privilege

Every antagonism, left to itself, is a floating
signifier, a ‘wild’ antagonism which does not
predetermine the form in which it can be
articulated to other elements in the social
formation. (171)
When these authors speak of ‘present industrial
societies’, they refer to the ‘proliferation of widely
different points of rupture’ and the ‘precarious character
of all social identity’, resulting in a ‘blurring of frontiers’

and revealing the ‘constructed character of the
demarcating lines’ (171).17

Discourses of difference applied to
Having identified six typical characteristics of discourses
of difference, I now want to see what happens if we apply
them to class. Are they able to articulate this particular
difference in a useful, politically galvanizing way, or
does their own logic necessarily suppress, or
misrepresent, economic difference?

this struggle because it has no identity to be wielded with
pride for which respect is demanded; it has no distinctive
political style which democratic procedures might
incorporate, and its needs are not of this order. Its
reluctant members would surely not wish to construct an
identity as underclass even if they had the autonomy and
resources to do so. The underclass is not pressing from
the margins to have its life-form represented, then, and it
is inconceivable that it could anyway be democratically
introduced to free, fair and efficacious debate without
massive structural reorganizations of state, society and
economy, on which discourses of difference have no real

Paradoxically, the more obviously economically
motivated working class has a better claim to description
in terms of identity. For it can lay claim to a tradition of
solidarity and a cultural identity which the bourgeoisie
generally denigrates. Working-class communities have
often enjoyed a strong sense of their own speech patterns,
music, rituals and history, for which respect and visibility


has been demanded. But even so, these have now been
mainly integrated or ruined, and besides, it would be odd
to foreground this politics at the expense of labour’s
struggles against exploitation and commodification,
where a militancy beyond deliberative democracy and
cultural transgression have been required. Nevertheless,
the forging of a self-conscious identity, albeit one
predicated on a recognition of objective conditions, did
associate working-class identity with empowerment,
whereas for the underclass identity is a sign rather of its
oppression, and one which fits well under the second
category of discourses of difference.

2. The Other and marginality
From the outside, the underclass looks like just the sort
of marginalized, silenced and excluded group that
discourses of difference invoke so effectively. Thus,
besides the objective quantification of everyday
deprivation, it can equally be presented as Other. Even
Marx describes it as the “‘dangerous class”, the social
scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the
lowest layers of old society’ .19 The identity ascribed to it
is that of the underside and antithesis of respectable,
hard-working society, although no dialectical
progression is implied. According to the popular images
of the two-thirds society, the underclass is a repository
for everything it rejects and finds threatening: a morass
of delinquents and criminals; the diseased and insane;
the financially and sexually profligate; foreigners and

Although the poverty of low-paid members of the
working class shades economically into the deprivations
of the underclass, a distinction between the two remains
important in this context of alterity. Giovanna Procacci
has drawn attention to traditional distinctions between
the productive poor, whom political economy addressed,
and whose poverty was if anything discerned as an asset
to the system, and paupers, who were subjected to a
social economy that legitimized disciplinary procedures
such as welfare, hygiene and education. In this latter case,
she writes, ‘it is not poverty as the stigma of inequality
that is combated, but pauperism understood as a cluster
of behaviours, a carrier of difference. ’20 In other words,
the poor but productive are already subjected to market
discipline, whereas those who would be defined as
members of the underclass are seen as avoiding any
normalizing regime. In so far as they are constituted as a
class that is Other, this is itself part of a strategy for social
control, but one that is insidiously presented as aid.

From this perspective, discourses of difference do
have significant political purchase. They alert us to power
relations that work on the poor in addition to the
economic. Moreover, they also reveal the ways in which


apparently radical strategies for helping the underclass
can be used to discipline it and even to construct it. Its
needs may themselves be part of this construction, and
one that is used for disciplinary purposes. If, however,
this aspect of construction is overemphasized, it then
detracts from any objective indicator of underclass
membership, and in particular from the shared reality of
poverty which shows up in real deprivations such as
disease and death, which are not just metaphors of moral
panic or vehicles of power.

3. Tolerance, respect, celebration
Liberal virtues of tolerance and respect are patently
inappropriate when it comes to class, and a celebration
or fostering of difference becomes simply nonsensical.

For economic inequality is patterned not as a plurality of
horizontal diversities, but according to a vertical scale of
more and less. No matter where individuals are
positioned in this hierarchy, they can agree that while
market economies endure it is better to be higher than
lower. While a small and atypical part of the underclass
might sacrifice resources for ‘quality of life’ , for the vast
majority it is precisely lack of that quality which is
symptomatic of poverty, and it rarely makes sense to
worsen one’s life chances on indices such as death rates,
health, infant mortality, housing and income.

Respect for those on lower echelons is patronizing;
tolerance for those above, irrelevant. Class differences
cannot be presented as incommensurate cultures,’ each
with its own values internal to it. Class is relational
precisely because positions are allocated within a single
economy where there are complex structural relations
which tend to operate as a zero-sum game. In other
words, this is a game of winners and losers, not an
agonistic jousting. Rich and poor do not simply belong
to separate groups, but are divided according to the
requirements of a system where the gains of the betteroff are often made at the expense of the worse-off.

Capitalism needs a reserve army of producers, just as it
needs poverty both as incentive and as a side-effect of
cheap labour. It probably does not need an underclass,
other than as a threat to the indigent, yet this is just the
refuse it accumulates when life chances are distributed
only according to its productionist scale of rewards.

This structural interdependence is evident as soon as
ethical questions about distribution are introduced. Here
it is not the postmodern spectre of relativism that
threatens, but the very modern one of self-interest.

However, it is precisely the latter that is most commonly
invoked on the utilitarian ground that the rich cannot be
insulated from the poor: effects leak and migrate. An
underclass is bad for better-off individuals because it is
threatening and unaesthetic; it is inimical to the collective

since it threatens breakdown of community, high taxation
and economic underperformance. 21 For the poor
themselves, crime and delinquency may be a much more
effective strategy than continence and democracy, and
certainly more than tolerance and respect. Neither caring
nor an open-mindedness towards the Other makes much
sense here.

4. Openness/closure
Fluid boundaries would spell the end of class, if not of a
wandering inequality. They may well be desirable as a
goal, but if they are assumed as a model of existing
societies they merely hide the extent to which class
barriers are not readily traversed and remain relatively
closed. If classes are fragmented and the site of
multiple antagonisms in terms of members’ identity,
their membership is nevertheless fairly stable in terms
of economic indicators. However, their members are
neither participants in a ‘bad’ identity, in that they
cling to it exclusively and rigidly, nor members of a
‘good’ group, in that they are open-minded and
tolerant, willing to engage in free and open debate
and ready to compromise through mutual
understanding. And for the underclass, it is anyway
the majority society that tries to seal up its boundaries
so definitively, lest it contaminate or economically
threaten the more privileged. It may be internally
defined by its fragmented state, but this does not mean
that its members enjoy postmodern mobility or the
luxury of identity tourism.

5. Differance
Class is relational, but its dynamics cannot be understood
according to the structures of linguistics (as a play of
differance) , as mobile and open. No matter how
fragmented, it can never be reduced to a play of multiple
and endlessly deferred differences. While
increasingly fragmented classes might make their
boundaries and distinctions more difficult to locate in
terms of self-identity, then, class itself is not a
postmodern (or liberal) phenomenon in that it will not
and cannot resolve itself into either simple diversity
or a mosaic of incommensurable but equally valuable
differences. A political economy that explores class
relations in terms of their hierarchy, fixity, closure
and reproduction is surely more appropriate here.

6. The discursive and the real
Class is a problematic difference for discourses
inspired by poststructuralism or radical antiessentialism because even if it is pared down to no
more than an index of structured economic inequality,
this implies that: (1) there is a reality which can be
represented objectively; (2) this reality exists

regardless of our discursive ability to articulate it; (3)
its discursive representation should be evaluated
according to how adequately it represents the real; (4)
there is therefore an independent reality to be excavated
from beneath appearances; and (5) in principle all could
agree on the evidence regardless of their positioning or
politics. To discover the requisite linkages, moreover, a
systematic, holistic reading would be needed.

The whole drift of postmodern approaches has,
however, been to deconstruct any stratum, such as the
sexed or racial body, for which claims are made to
objective status. Accordingly, identities no longer map
onto anything real, since everything is discursively
produced. Even in the modified form Laclau and Mouffe
give it, class would still exist as no more than a ‘wild’

and mute antagonism, until it had been articulated. But
what if economic indices of structured inequality are not
matched by an appropriate articulation? Does this mean
that this difference is thereby nullified so far as its
recognition and rectification are concerned? Indeed, it is
precisely this danger that I am exploring by juxtaposing
discourses of difference with the statistics of class
inequality. Yet can this consequence be avoided only by
appealing to ‘real’ needs: needs which class members
might not articulate themselves but which are ascribed to
them by others? This is just what falls foul of radical
democratic emphasis on the autonomy of grQups to voice
their own needs and identities, and it might indeed have
sinister implications. But are the mute and gnawing pains
of real deprivation not to be counted or politicized if they
find no adequate means among the poor for selfrepresentation? Are they not an imperative that persists
regardless of the circulations and discontinuities of
shifting regimes of truth? In this context class might no
longer even be seen as the best way to present material

Class is equally problematic if it is presented in
postmodern terms as performative. For, perhaps unlike
gender, it cannot be reduced to its performances.

Performing certain tasks and roles can be halted – for
example, by striking or rioting – but it is the
consequences of the activity, not the subversion of a style
of performance, that is important. Unlike gender, class
cannot be reduced to surface inscriptions of ritual and
repetition, and it cannot be subverted by parody.22 It does
not need denaturalizing since everyone agrees it is
conventional. In many ways, then, I have come full circle
back to my starting point, where I noticed the hiatus
between economic indicators of massive material
inequality on the one hand, and discourses of difference
on the other.


It might be objected to my thesis regarding the overall
inadequacy of the discourses of difference for
articulating class difference that those discourses were
never designed to address this particular cleavage but, on
the contrary, to acknowledge the myriad cultural
differences that circulate elsewhere. However, given the
currently almost hegemonic status of the discourses of
difference among those who lay claim to political
radicalism, the result has been to silence economic
difference as a significant form of differentiation.

Moreover, these discourses have both undermined the
theories that had previously articulated class and convey
an erroneous impression that they have a capacity to
accommodate diversities of all kinds. The result,
unintended as it might be, is both to occlude class
difference and to deny the necessity for some new,
systematic articulation, perhaps a renewed political
economy, that would be more adequate to the task.

An important aspect of this task is undoubtedly a
renewal of social critique, and this surely requires some
shift away from the current dominance of literary and
cultural studies (as well as from a pervasive liberalism)
back towards the social sciences. Before this can occur,
however, some serious rethinking about theory and the
status of objective, systematic analysis and of the
empirical – the real – needs to be undertaken.

On the question of developing new discourses
adequate to structured economic inequality, two points
have emerged from my discussion which I would wish to
emphasize. First, because of its weighty discursive
legacy and the sociological shifts occurring in postmodernity, class may no longer be the best way to
articulate material difference. Of course we might yet
conclude that it is; but it is surely important at least to
begin by assuming that some other signifier(s) might be
more fecund in representing this matrix of causes and

Second, it seems probable that diverse classes will
need to be theorized differently and complexly and not
only as differential positions vis-a.-vis capitalist
production. A systematic but non-totalizing theory is
therefore required: perhaps some combination of Marx
and Foucault or, in Habermasian terms, an analysis of
steering media as well as life-world communication. In
this context it is important to consider whether class
represents a unique difference which requires its own
discursive paraphernalia, or whether discourses of
difference themselves need transforming so they can
accommodate it. The danger is that the sort of debates
which once led Marxist feminism into an impasse,
regarding the relative significance of class and gender,


material and cultural factors, will repeat themselves here
where reductionism or dualism threaten despite their
unsatisfactory nature. But it is also important to keep in
mind that class is never an autonomous difference, in so
far as it cuts across other diversities like race and gender.

From this perspective its discursive retrieval would be
salutary for discourses like feminism, which have also
been caught in the hegemonic shift towards questions of
identity at the expense of economic analysis.

Finally, the points above suggest a purposeful
distancing from Marx; yet, in reality, any invocation of
class or its substitutes will have to settle its debts with
Marxism, and it is perhaps inevitable that we will at least,
as Derrida has recently expressed it, proceed in the
spirit(s) of Marx. For if the latter’s grand narrative has
been reduced from emancipatory truth to oppressive
fable, its method of reading and criticizing capitalism
still privileges it as an instrument of social critique. Its
analysis of alienation, exploitation, commodification and
so on is a potent reminder that class is far more than a
distributional question of social justice.

Given the massive and fatal consequences of poor
life chances, it might be especially helpful to start by
disentangling poststructuralists’ pronouncements on the
death of the subject from Marx’ s starting point, which is
not some abstract post-Cartesian ego but real, sensuous,
embodied persons with basic needs. Such is the challenge
of those stubborn economic indices of structured mat~rial

1. A version of this article was first presented at the
Philosophy and Social Science Conference at the Czech
Academy of Sciences, Prague, May 1995. It has benefited
from discussion among conference participants. In
particular, I would like to thank Peter Dews, David
Ingram, Lynne Segal, Nick Smith and Iris Young for their

2. As for example Emesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe do in
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical
Democratic Politics, Verso, London, 1985.

3. T. Bilton et aI., Introductory Sociology, Macmillan,
London, 1981,p.44.

4. Research suggests that inequalities widened during the
1980s in Britain, New Zealand, Sweden, Japan, West
Germany and the United States (Guardian, 10
February 1995, p. 7). Even Derrida asks ‘what is one
to think today of the imperturbable thoughtlessness
that consists in singing the triumph of capitalism or of
economic and political liberalism, … the “end of the
problem of social classes”?’ Or again: ‘never have
violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus
economic oppression affected as many human beings
in the history of the earth and of humanity’ (Derrida,
Specters of Marx, Routledge, London, 1994, pp. 78,
85). Unemployment is the first of the ten ‘plagues of
the new world order’ Derrida cites (p. 81).

5. For example, by Goran Therbom in S. Hall and M.

Jacques, eds, New Times: The Changing Face of Politics

in the 1990s, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1989.

6. I think there is also an argument to be made regarding
context, but it is too complex for this article. Broadly,
however, the particular differences that are focused on will
vary according to context, and it would therefore be no
accident that the eclipse of class coincides with the recent
dominance of American political theorists in a context
where class has never had the sort of resonance it finds in
Europe, and especially in Britain. Given massive
economic inequality in the United States, nevertheless,
this would support my concluding comments that such
inequality might require theorization in other terms. At
the same time, American liberals have tended to be
especially wary of the rise in national politics of Christian
fundamentalism: a ‘difference’ whose demand for a voice
might send even the most radical thinker scurrying to the
safety of Rawlsian neutrality.

7 Stuart Hall, in New Times, p. 121. Or, as Laclau and
Mouffe put it in a specifically Marxist context, ‘there is no
logical connection whatsoever between positions in the
relations of production and the mentality of the workers’

(Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 84).

8. See, for example, Anne Phillips, Democracy and
Difference, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 3-4, even
though Phillips has generally remained unusually
emphatic regarding class difference.

9. A typical strategy is in fact to acknowledge class
differences in passing, but then to remove them from the
field of interest into another, rather traditional realm,
where welfare and rights issues are played out in a fairly
conventional liberal-democratic mode, under universalist
notions of equality and rights. I think Habermas does this,
for example, in his essay ‘Struggles for Recognition in
Constitutional States’, European Journal of Philosophy,
vol. 1, no. 2, 1993.

10. It may seem paradoxical to include discourse ethics under
this poststructuralist rubric, given Habermas’s attacks on
the latter. But his interest in difference would nevertheless
catch him within this postmodern imaginary; and,
moreover, many of his sympathizers argue that a more
radical appreciation of difference needs infusing into his
work. Seyla Benhabib, Stephen White and Iris Young all,
for example, introduce postmodern discourse into their
own versions of discursive democracy.

11. Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’ , Afterword in
H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, eds, Michel Foucault:

Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, HarvesterWheatsheaf, Brighton, 1982, p. 212.

12. Edward Said, Orientalism, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
London, 1978. See also Robert Young, White
Mythologies, Routledge, London and New York, 1990;
and Nancy Hartsock, ‘Rethinking Modernism: Minority
versus Majority Theories’, Cultural Critique, Fall 1987,
among others. Also Julia Kristeva, Etrangers if no us
memes, Librairie Artheme Fayard, Paris, 1988.

13. Foucault, The Order of Things, Tavistock, London and
New York, 1970, p. xxiv.

14. Thus Habermas insists that dogmatic groups such as
religious fundamentalists ‘leave no room for reasonable
disagreement’, that is, ‘a civilized dispute between
convictions in which one party can recognize the others as
parties to the dispute on authentic truths without having to
sacrifice its own validity claim’ (‘Struggles for
Recognition’, p. 144). This kind of claim is, however, very
problematic if applied to class.

15. Stephen White, Political Theory and Postmodernism,
Cambridge Uni versity Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 109ff.

16. Iris Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference,
Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1990.

17. Laclau and Mouffe: ‘there is no relation of oppression
without the presence of a discursive “exterior” from which
the discourse of subordination can be interrupted’

(Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, p. 154); ‘the problem
of the political is the problem of the institution of the
social, that is, of the definition and articulation of social
relations in a field cri ss-crossed with antagonism’ (p. 153);
‘The rejection of privileged points of rupture and the
confluence of struggles into a unified political space, and
the acceptance, on the contrary, of the plurality and
indeterminacy of the social’ (p. 152).

18. The sort of struggle that Charles Taylor describes in
Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recognition’,
Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1992.

19. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, in R. Tucker, ed.,
The Marx-Engels Reader, Norton, New York and
London, 1978,p.482.

20. G. Procacci, ‘Social Economy and the Government of
Poverty’, in G. Burchell et aI., eds, The Foucault Effect,
Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1991, p. 164. She adds that
pauperism is ‘a magma in which are fused all the dangers
which beset the social order, shifting along unpredictable,
untraceable channels of transmission and aggregation. It
is insubordinate, hidden from the scrutinizing gaze of any
governing instance. The definition of pauperism … does
not work essentially through economic categories; rather
than a certain level of poverty, images of pauperism put
the stress principally on feelings of fluidity and
indefiniteness’ (p. 158).

21. It is this sort of logic, for example, that the Rowntree
Report employs, rather than appealing to more altruistic
or philanthropic ethics.

22. The allusion here is, of course, to Judith Butler’s Gender
Trouble (Routledge, New York and London, 1989).



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