John Scott on Alan Carling's *Social Division*

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at SPAMjuno.com
Sun Oct 29 14:18:37 MST 2000


Here is a review of Carling's 1992 book *Social Division* which I
downloaded
from somewhere, some time ago.  It would seem to have som relevance to
some of the recent debates on this list

Jim
________________________________________________

Social Division, Alan Carling, Verso, 1992, 442 pages, £44.95 hardback,
£14.95 paperback.

This is a dense and closely-argued book, with numerous graphs and
diagrams
which are integral to the argument. But this should not deter people from
reading the book, as it concerns many of the most important issues in the
study of social stratification. Carling writes from a Marxist standpoint,
and he confronts the rational choice argument of Roemer (and through him
the works of Wright and Elster) in order to develop his own model of
class
relations which is then applied to the issues of household divisions of
labour, gender divisions, ethnicity, and the structure of socialist
society. The argument is introduced through a critical consideration of
the
works of Brenner and Cohen, and Carling aims to synthesize a rational
choice approach with Cohen's functionalist approach to Marxism.

The debate between Jerry Cohen (in Karl Marx's Theory of History) and
Robert Brenner (in his article in the New Left Review) centered on the
issue of whether historical materialism was a functionalist theory of
technological determinism (Cohen) or a theory of strategic class action
(Brenner). For Cohen, the superstructure was functional for the structure
of the relations of production which was, in turn, functional for the
forces of production: that is to say, each level exists because it
contributes to the maintenance or development of the one 'below it'.
Carling agrees with Elster that such an explanation depends, in
principle,
on the existence of a continuous causal chain of (unintended)
consequences,
of feedback relations which ensure the functional connection. In
practice,
however, such a complete reduction is unnecessary: we can, for example,
focus our attention on the functional connections between 'social facts'
without reducing those to the individuals, or psychological or biological
facts on which they rest.

According to Brenner, actors formulate rational strategies on the basis
of
their class locations, their strategies being aimed at the preservation
or
improvement of their class position and concomitant advantages. On this
basis, he points to a difficulty with Cohen's explanation of the
transition
from feudalism to capitalism. This explanation, he argues, would seem to
require that pre-capitalist actors had acted, intentionally, in such a
way
as to establish the totally novel capitalist relations which contributed
to
the development of the forces of production. Carling points out that
Cohen's position, in fact, requires only that economic structures are
selectively retained whenever they promote technological development. The
explanation rests not on intention per se, but on the selective survival
of
'successful' innovations. Although he does not put it this way, a
functional model of society needs to be associated with an evolutionary
model of development. (See, for example, the important re-statement and
defence of evolutionism and its mechanism of natural selection in Volume
Two of W G Runciman's A Treatise on Social Theory, Cambridge University
Press, 1989).

Carling holds that the lynchpin of such functional/evolutionary
explanations is the notion of rational action, and it is here that he
turns
to a detailed consideration of the views of John Roemer, as set out in
his
A General Theory of Exploitation and Class (Harvard University Press,
1982), Value, Exploitation and Class (Harwood, 1986), and Free to Lose
(Radius, 1988). In these books Roemer outlined an individualistic model
of
rational economic agents with similar roots, to the models of marginalism
and new right economic theory. But Roemer uses these models to
reconstruct
- and to validate - the general framework of Marxist theory. He
constructs
models of class relations in which the interests and action of agents
define specific relations of exploitation and are involved in their
reproduction or transformation. This is undoubtedly the most complex part
of Carling's book, where he seeks to work through the implications of
Roemer's axioms and analyses. The point behind the mathematical models is
to derive an objective and critical yardstick for measuring the level of
well-being and exploitation in a society. Carling's conclusion is that:

     'Capitalism is an economic system of dubious historical provenance,
     under which private owners have assumed the legal right to use
     resources belonging to us all in ways that they are not entitled to
     do; it has forced great masses of people on pain of misery to
support
     and extend this system of injustice, and by its very nature it has
     unfairly imposed on one class alone among the able-bodied population
     the burden of providing for the basic needs of all' (p.146).

Matters remain mathematical when Carling turns to apply his ideas to
substantive areas of investigation. In this work - over a half of the
book
- Carling explores the relationship between 'economic' and 'ideological'
factors in social divisions, concluding that ideology must be taken
account
of in any adequate model of rational action. He looks, for example, at
'economic' models of household strategies and divisions of labour,
showing
the existence of domestic exploitation. More significantly, he shows that
the assumption of differential socialisation by gender provides the
'strategic pre-commitments' which enable participants to resolve problems
of rational strategy and establish a stable pattern of oppression. In
this
way, rational choice produces an 'amplification of socialisation'. He
goes
on to argue that the mutually opposed roles of breadwinner and
houseworker
are to be understood as embodying a class relation. There are two faces
to
class: the public face defined by a person's relation to the means of
production, and the private face defined by a person's relation to the
provision of household goods. Both bourgeoisie and proletariat are
differentiated by the 'private' division between breadwinner and
homeworker. Carling makes similar points in relation to ethnicity,
showing
that recognition as a member of a particular ethnic group creates
strategic
pre-commitments which shape the outcome of rational strategies.

An understanding of all these arguments requires a degree of mathematical
competence and some familiarity with formal logic. Carling does summarise
some of his leading ideas in plain text, but the bulk of them are
embodied
in equations, theorems, and graphs. This is both an advantage and a
problem. The advantage is that Carling, like most contributors to
rational
choice theory, can pursue a logical and rigorous line of argument in
which
any significant flows can be spotted by a critic with a similar degree of
mathematical competence. The disadvantage is that it is impenetrable for
the general reader who looks for a more discursive presentation. Thus,
the
theory may be rigorous and powerful, but it may fail to engage with its
potential audience. This would be a pity. Anyone interested in social
stratification or in social theory more generally should make the
struggle
to understand this book. I certainly intend to do so.

John Scott
University of Leicester


------------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright John Scott 1996
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