Dr. Michael McCarthy, The Problem of Class Abstraction: Culture and Class Formation in Social Theory

Event Date: 

Monday, April 4, 2022 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm

Event Location: 

  • In Person
  • SMSS 2001

Abstract: With renewed critical interest in capitalism, class analysis has returned to the intellectual agenda of social theory. Yet the enlivened debate about the significance of class has brought a familiar criticism, that of “class reductionism.” In this paper we argue that class reductionism is best broken down into two analytically distinct components, what we term the structural and political primacy of class. Structural primacy concerns the role of class structure in social explanation. Political primacy concerns the role played by class subjectivities in radical social transformation. This distinction allows us to identify four intellectual traditions with respect to the significance of class: relativism, constructivism, abstractionism and dynamism. The aim of this paper is not to defend Marxism against its detractors within this conceptual space. Instead, it is to differentiate class abstractionism and class dynamism as analytically coherent alternatives within, broadly construed, Marxian social theory. Through an engagement with recent theoretical contributions about class structure and class formation, we argue that class abstractionism reproduces weaknesses inherited from “orthodox” Marxism and offers an impoverished account of collective action. Such a view rests on an argument for the structural primacy of class that is unduly abstract and thereby assumes its political primacy in subjective terms. We instead sketch the contours of an alternative that is dynamic, conjunctural and explicitly attentive to the role played by non-class structures and subjectivities in processes of class formation.


Michael A. McCarthy (Berggruen Fellow, University of Southern California and Associate Professor of Sociology at Marquette University) works on power, finance and economic democracy. He is the author of Dismantling Solidarity: Capitalist Politics and American Pensions since the New Deal (Cornell University Press, 2017) and has written for journals such as the Annual Review of Sociology, Critical Historical Studies, Labor Studies Journal, Mobilization, Politics & Society and Socio-Economic Review. He is currently undertaking several projects on economic justice, including a book on democratizing finance, tentatively titled The Master’s Tools: Using Finance Against Capitalism and another on the social theory of the late sociologist, Erik Olin Wright.