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Economic Determinism?

July 30th, 2017

My view is that each particular mode of production, and the relations of production corresponding to it at each given moment, in short ‘the economic structure of society’, is ‘the real foundation, on which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’, and that ‘the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life’.

-Karl Marx
-A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Money for the right kind of education, money for influential friends, money for leisure and peace of mind, money for trips to Italy. Money writes books, money sells them. Give me not righteousness, O Lord, give me money, only money.

-George Orwell
-Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Is life determined by the economic structure of your environment? Is it as simple as: “You are what you do”? Of course it isn’t. It is a view which overlooks the complex variety in human character. Furthermore, we should not pigeonhole individuals. It strips them of their humanity and skills and the talents that go beyond the mere acquisition of a paycheck. Yet the common conception of "being" your job reveals quite a lot about how class determines the many facets of your life.

Your job determines, to a certain extent, where you live. If you make a living wage, enough to provide for adequate food and shelter and transportation, most likely you live in a working class neighborhood. If you have just enough money for the basic staples of existence you cannot afford to purchase a mansion, or a luxury car.

Your class is also a big determining factor in other necessities of life. Where you shop for clothing, food and entertainment can be traced to your how much you earn. If you’re among the upper class, you can afford a meal with your family or significant other at a five star restaurant and not have keep price in mind while you peruse the menu.

Concerning eating, a Wikipedia article titled “Social class differences in food consumption” paraphrases the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in noting, “While the middle class can afford to eat whatever they’d like, the working class simply has a ‘taste for necessity’ and eats what they can afford.” Once again, we are reminded of what we earn when we sit down to dinner or what foods are “off limits” due to price at the grocery store.

Beyond food, our economic circumstances have great bearing on our personal life. At a birthday party recently, a woman informed me that she would not date someone who was not economically stable. Indeed, aside from Hollywood fantasies, you do not likely witness cross-class marriage. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Adia Harvey Wingfield wrote, "In her 2015 book, The Power of the Past, the sociologist Jessi Streib shows that marriages between someone with a middle-class background and someone with a working-class background can involve differing views on all sorts of important things-child-rearing, money management, career advancement, to spend leisure time." Once again Plutos, the god of wealth, trumps Eros, the god of sexual attraction.

Beyond dating and marriage, perhaps the most important of all these lack of options is your personal well-being. What if you need urgent medical care and don’t have employer sponsored health care? Or perhaps you have a pre-existing condition? Or need medication in order to live a healthy life? Every two to three years I have to have an endoscopy procedure to make sure I do not develop throat cancer. If I did not have any health insurance, this operation would cost me about $5,000!

Now all of this information does not mean that if you are not “well off” you should live in quiet misery. By no means! What the preceding information should do is awaken you to class consciousness. This is the realization that you occupy a specific class. If this makes you angry that you are limited in your choices and direction in life, good. There is PSA poster in the local Du Page county building which exclaims, “Your path in life should not be determined by your zip code.” We can paraphrase this and state, “Your path in life should not be determined by your class.”

Karl Marx once noted that the goal of philosophy should not be to understand life, but to change it. If you are in the working class, you should work about changing your circumstances. Vote when you can. Get involved with candidates that share your views. And, by all means, do not remain silent. Write letters to newspapers and legislators demonstrating your commitment to great cause of democratic socialism. Only in voice and action will we achieve our vision of democratic socialism.

~ John Arturi, WSDSA Member

Note: DSA is a pluralistic organization that has members who hold a wide range of progressive beliefs. A blog post is not an official stance of national DSA or WSDSA.