Why Are You Betraying Your Class?
Abstract: Social justice concerns us on two counts: One, what is social justice? Two, given that we know the answer to one, then the question is: how can social justice be implemented? Answering the first question requires hitting the right balance between two values: liberty and equality. My concern here, however, is with the second question, the question of implementation rather than with what social justice consists of. I assume that the right balance between liberty and equality is somehow a given. To implement the structural changes that a just society requires calls for a historical agent that can bring about such changes. The working class was a good candidate to be such a historical agent. The working class was suitable for this historical task because it was the class that had the most to gain from a just society and it was a very large class of people. The working class was singled out for this task not for being a particularly virtuous class but by being the class that had the most to gain from a change in the status quo. But the working class is rapidly disappearing; in the developed countries, it has shrunk considerably. Thus, the implementation of social justice is now left without an effective historical agent to carry it through.
An Introductory Story
I remember the day. It was 18 June 1970: The day of the United Kingdom's general election. I was standing in a desolate bus-stop in Oxford, on my way to friends with a TV set, to watch the soccer world cup. A ruddy faced toff Tory arrived, with a top hat and beaming carnation.
He had an aura of Deep England and he ingratiated himself in a friendly manner. I made it clear to him that he should not waste his limited canvassing time on me, since I am a foreigner not entitled to vote. Well, he said disarmingly, since I have nothing better to do, let me ask you: Had you had a chance to vote how would you vote? ‘Labour’, I said and added ‘of course’. He stared at me, genuinely puzzled, and said: But why would you betray your class?
I was stung and stunned. I was raised in the Labour movement, believing that I belonged to the working class. We sang solidarity songs in our Hebrew labour movement school at the time this Tory went around the Mulberry bush, and to betray our class meant to be a scab, a knob-stick; to cross the picket line. And here I am confronting a man who assumes that anyone associated with Oxford gown rather than with Oxford town belongs to his class.
No one believed on that day that Edward Heath and the Tory party would win the election, least of all the canvasser. But since he was so nice, and in spite of his aura he looked so vulnerable, I tried to cheer him up. Well, you may still win, I said without conviction. Look, I said, a few days ago I was watching the England soccer match against Germany in a local pub. England led two goals to nil but cruelly lost at the end to Germany. The working class kids were so down in the mouth that they won't have the energy to vote, and you may win. Little did I suspect that something else was taking place with my ‘working class’.
Working class people in great numbers voted the Tories that day into power. They responded, belatedly, not to England's soccer defeat, but to Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech, on the danger of immigrants to Britain. Powell echoed the Sybil's words to Aeneid: ‘Wars, horrible wars, I see and the Tiber foaming with blood’. Millions of working class people saw blood and were bloody angry at their Labour government's liberal immigration policy, and voted the Tories into power. I felt that Powellite labour in Britain, much as Labour-Lepenists later in France, betrayed their class in not showing solidarity with the immigrants. But Powellite labour much as Labour-Lepenists in France had a very different perception. They felt that the traditional parties of the working class betrayed them, by not defending them from the immigrants, towards whom they hadn't had the slightest sense of solidarity.
Betraying From Above and From Below
One can betray one's class from above; being above and siding with the lower classes, or one can betray one's class from below; being below and siding with the upper classes. The canvasser in Oxford accused me of betraying my class from above; assuming that I decided to side with a class which is lower than the one I belonged to. He didn't specify what my betrayal consisted in, but I guess that what he meant was that I was betraying my personal interests in trusting a party of a lower class. On his account I might pay more income tax than I and people like me would, had we sided with his party. He most likely thought that I was betraying my best personal interests. The way I understood him was that he questioned my rationality, not my morality.
But the main thrust of betrayal from above is of a different kind; it means undermining the legitimate claim of the upper class to govern. Upper classes perceive themselves as the natural rulers—born to govern—free from the fickle nature of the multitudes: They stand for continuity (‘heritage’), stability, long experience; in short, they stand for tradition—the tested wisdom of generations.
In their view the lower classes—the masses, the mob—are inherently unsuitable to govern, guided as they are by irresponsible demagogues and contemptible populists. There is no safety in numbers, only recklessness. Cato, rightly, hurled this accusation against Catalina; Edmund Burke, wrongly, hurled it against Mirabeau and Sieyes, and many Boston Brahmins treated Roosevelt in the same manner. ‘Traitor to his Class’ is indeed a title of a recent biography of FDR (Brands 2008). It means betraying one's class from above by eroding its claim to rule, in joining forces with ‘the common people’.
I am interested in the idea of betraying one's class from below, namely, betraying working class solidarity. The question I am interested in is: what does one betray, if at all, by not siding with the working class? The idea I am about to examine is that working class solidarity is an enabling condition for bringing about a just society. Hence betraying working class solidarity is betraying the cause of justice. Justice stands for a particular form of human relations: the right form. Betraying the cause of justice is therefore betraying human relations rather than betraying an abstract idea.
There are two famous stories about Zhou Enlai, both too good to be false. One story has it that the uncouth Khrushchev who envied the worldliness of Zhou tried to snub him by saying: ‘It's interesting, isn't it. I'm of working class origin while your family were landlords’. To which Zhou's quick retort was: ‘Yes, and we each betrayed our class.’ Another is that when Zhou was asked whether the French Revolution was a good thing he famously answered: ‘It is too early to tell.’
I would like to combine the stories by looking at betrayal and justice in the light of the French revolution.
The Revolutionary Triangle
The triangle ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ is the famous slogan of the French revolution. Robespierre suggested weaving the slogan on the French flag. His suggestion was not accepted. But the slogan was well inscribed in the revolutionary consciousness. There is no agreed sense of what the slogan means. Thomas Carlyle, punning on the related revolutionary slogan ‘Fraternity or Death’, wrote that fraternity in the French revolution meant ‘Be my brother, or I will kill you’ (Young 1927: 153). But there are of course far more charitable understandings of fraternity.
In any case the revolutionary triangle set the agenda for much of the political thinking since the revolution. A great deal of effort was devoted to explaining the twin notions of liberty and equality and what lies between them. By ‘what lies between them’ I have in mind questions like can we have liberty without economic equality? ‘No’ says the left; ‘yes’ says the liberal right. Can we gain equality without coercive means that would destroy liberty? ‘No’ says the right; ‘yes’ says the left. And so it goes. The neglected side in the revolutionary triangle is the side of fraternity, or in the workers' language, solidarity. Fraternity is a much more elusive term than either liberty or equality. Fraternity as a brotherly attitude towards people who are not literally brothers strikes many as a metaphorical term that cannot be cashed in, in literal terms.
There is however something else that deters thinkers from dealing with fraternity: it smacks of moral kitsch. Kitsch attracts activists and propagandists but it deters serious thinking. Kitsch in my eyes is not just an expression of bad taste. It is a term that should be applied equally to art and to morality. Sentimentality is what is wrong with kitsch and what is wrong with sentimentality is that it distorts reality so that we can indulge our feelings. To talk about strangers as brothers is such a distortion. To make the Other in capital O the ultimate brother is kitsch.
Indulging in ‘brotherly love’ is not to be in love with strangers but to be in love with our phony love of strangers. It is a second-order emotion, emotion about our real or affected emotions.
Kitsch solidarity, expressed in the old left marches of the ‘smiling brotherhood’ towards the blissful future is quite annoying. However, it had one crucial advantage over the culture of victimhood that replaced it. The workers are not passive victims but active creators of human civilization. Solidarity is an expression of pride not of simple misery.
Ralph Chaplin in his moving Solidarity Forever tells it all:
It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.
Fraternity: A Family Business
Fraternity, like the French fraternité, is rooted in frater (brother) and fraternus (brotherly). It evokes a metaphor of family relations: relations among brothers. The revolutionary idea of fraternité was meant to be extended to all humans so as to view humanity as an extended family: the family of man. Relations among brothers are basically horizontal relations: relations among equals. The revolutionary fraternity is in competition with another political family metaphor: paternalism, which is the government of a father over his children, a thoroughly vertical relation. It is a relation of authority and hierarchy. Paternalism is a relatively new term coined in the second half of the nineteenth century, but viewing the king as father and his subjects as children has been with us from time immemorial. Paternalism is based on the idea that the ruler, the metaphorical father, knows better what is good for his subjects, his metaphorical children, than they themselves do. Fraternity differs from paternalism and in a way is a rejection of paternalism. ‘We’, the metaphorical brothers, will help you as long as you are loyal to the family.
Solidarity does not invoke and does not connote family relations. Its etymology is quite different and if we trace it to its Roman root it has to do with the joint debt of a group that binds each and every member to a mutual personal responsibility for the whole (in solidum) debt. Fraternity and solidarity are in the grip of two different pictures: fraternity is modelled on family relations, solidarity on a strong partnership with unlimited liability in case of a joint debt.
Nationalism is in the grip of a family picture. It makes us think about the nation in terms of an extended family: lineal descent from common ancestors. Class solidarity is not conceived in family terms. When it matters I shall use fraternity for national solidarity, and reserve solidarity for what is predominantly class solidarity.
Let me hasten to add that the secular left has no monopoly on the use of the term solidarity. The term has an extensive use in Catholic writings, including conservative Catholic writings. A society on this account has solidarity to the extent that its members view their mutual dependence on each other as their dependence on God. It is no wonder that the famous movement in Poland that helped bring Communism down was called Solidarnosc, for it catered to both types of audience, Catholic and Communist (or ex-communist).
Cement of Society
What turns a bunch of human individuals into a stable society? Whatever the answer, this question is an invitation for apt metaphor. Cement, glue, fusion, ties, are shorthand for elaborate metaphors. Social cohesion is a term of art meant to replace such metaphors.
Nationalism is a huge exercise of matching the nation with a territory so as to create a state. This exercise is ridden with a familiar problem: usually more than one nation (‘people’) inhabits the territory designated for the state and the nation state cohesiveness seems to be threatened by this fact. Another threat is class division and with it class conflict. When there is an overlap between a class and an ethnic group which doesn't belong to the dominant nation of the nation state, the class in such a case becomes more akin to a caste.
I am interested in the tension between the demands of solidarity with the class and the demands of solidarity with the nation. Betraying the class and betraying the nation are very much in line with my concern. Though cohesiveness is a concern of every society struggling to stay as a society, I am interested only in two types of societies: class and nation. The political frame for the two types of societies I am interested in is usually the state.
Historically, two ideologies have competed for the primacy of loyalty and solidarity: Nationalism, with ‘nation first’ in its mild form and the ‘nation only’ in its extreme form, and Socialism with ‘working class first’ in its mild form and ‘working class only’ in its extreme form. Social democrats, under tremendous strain, were eager to keep the two loyalties: to the nation and to the class. We shall later see at what price.
Liberals glued society by the social contract; a contract among rational self-interested individuals. The question for the liberals was and still is: Is the contract good enough to keep society together? Is it enough of a glue? The ‘lawyerly’ contract seems lacking in the kind of emotional force that would make members of the society willing to make the kind of sacrifices sometimes needed to protect the society.
Indeed, contract in its civic sense is too watery to make society stick in trying times. The cement of society cannot be a contract, or a set of contracts, in their lawyerly sense.
But there is another sense of contract with strong religious underpinnings—a covenant if you like—in which the contract becomes a sort of sacrament. Jewish weddings have this peculiar nature of a ‘lawyerly’ contract that undergoes sanctification. The contract is elevated to a status of a sacrament. In the Bible, a sanctified contract in which God is a side to the covenant or its prime witness, is called Brit.
The etymology of Brit is quite telling: It is the act of tying together. But tying together can turn into an ugly metaphor. For tying a bundle of reeds together is the root metaphor of fascism.
The issue is to find the right glue between the watery liberal one and the oppressive fascist one. Uncle Emil Durkheim and his nephew Marcel Mauss were very much in the business of looking for such glue. They were interested in solidarity in one of its original Latin senses, namely to solidify: solidifying the society. Mauss suggested the idea that the gift exchange should be a model for such glue. Solidarity is the outcome of huge exercise in gift exchange; an exchange which differs from market exchanges, by having enough non-instrumental, ritualistic features, if you like, to make it like a semi-sacramental social contract, a covenant. To be in solidarity is to be tied by relationships akin to gift exchange.
Solidarity: Fate and Destiny
In a famous Jewish homiletic book Kol Dodi Dofek (2006), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick makes a useful distinction between two modes of existence: fate and destiny. Fate is an inert mode of human existence in which the individual or the group is a passive object affected by outside forces—usually adverse forces. Destiny is a mode of human existence an individual or a group tries actively to shape its life in face of forces acting on it.
Thus destiny gets the meaning of calling or vocation, rather than being a synonym of predetermined fate. Fate is thrust on the individual or the group, destiny involves choice. Based on this distinction Soloveitchick introduces two types of sacramental covenants: covenant of fate, based on shared fate, and covenant of destiny, based on a common calling.
I shall not here go into his theology and the meaning of these two types of covenants in Jewish life.
What I would like to do is to discuss fate and destiny as two elements in solidarity relations. Solidarity is a necessary condition of turning a group of common fates into a community of destiny. By fate I mean common misfortune. Instead of two covenants we may talk of two solidarities: solidarity of fate and solidarity of destiny. Solidarity of fate tends to stress victimhood and belongs very much to the culture of victimhood; solidarity of destiny tends to be based on responsibility as a historical agent, and on pride.
Solidarity of fate consists of allegiance to those who share the common fate. Solidarity of destiny consists of allegiance to a common cause. In the case of solidarity of destiny human relations are dimmed and the allegiance seems to be an allegiance to a cause. But the cause only helps in forming solidarity, whereas solidarity is predominately a relation among human beings.
Fate and destiny form two different orientations in time: Fate on the past, destiny on the future. Solidarity of fate creates a community of memory, solidarity of destiny creates movement and collective action. When fate and destiny are combined and solidarity is a combined force of memories and action, solidarity is at its best.
Solidarity, be it solidarity of fate or of destiny covers a whole gamut of human emotions. It may start with mild sympathy, go through operative sympathy of moral support, and end with total alignment with a group, right or wrong, which includes readiness to sacrifice a great deal for the well being of the group.
But then solidarity is more than emotion; it is a life stance towards people and ideals one renders highly important in one's life.
Solidarity and Justice
The working class in many advanced societies has historically formed a community of fate—sharing the history of an exploited class—while harbouring an aspiration to be a community of destiny; the destiny of bringing about a just society, in the form of a classless society based on justice.
Justice can be conceived as striking the right balance between two values: equality and freedom. So justice comprises two sides of the revolutionary triangle. Fraternity, or solidarity, on such a view is an enabling condition to bring about justice.
Both fraternity and solidarity form human relations which are of intrinsic value. They are not mere instruments for collective action. Indeed fraternity in its strong sense of mutual brotherly care may be a manifestation of human relations more valuable than relations based on justice. Justice in the family is not the highest value of family life, love ranks much higher. But fraternity in the extended sense is not a strict family relation and justice counts for a great deal. So I am interested in fraternity as an enabling condition and leave its intrinsic value untouched.
On this reading of the revolutionary triangle, solidarity is an instrument for bringing about justice, namely the right balance between freedom and equality. The idea is that a sense of justice on its own is not enough of a motivating force to bring about a just society. Only a strong sense of solidarity combined with a sense of justice has a chance to bring about a just society.
Solidarity determines the extent of the society which is a candidate for establishing a just constitution. Had humanity at large been able to form a solidarity group, then the extent of a just society would have been the whole of humanity. But there is no politics in Cosmo-politics, only a metaphor, and humanity at large is not a political unit with enough sense of solidarity.
Solidarity is not a cosmopolitan notion but an international one, and so is justice. The word ‘universal’ in contrast to ‘particular’ blurs an important distinction about solidarity and justice, namely the distinction between universal in the cosmopolitan sense and in the international sense—the latter being comprised of a variety of particular solidarities.
Promoting Justice or Fighting Injustice
In 1882 Leon Pinsker, a Russian Jewish doctor, published a pamphlet which was an appeal to his fellow Jews for Auto-Emancipation (Pinsker 1936). It came out a year after the traumatic anti-Jewish riots in Russia. The idea was not to count on emancipation of the Jews granted by others, but for Jews to emancipate themselves. By ‘emancipation from others’ Pinsker had the French revolution in mind, which promised the Jews acceptance to the general society as equal citizens. What Pinsker doubted was the force of abstract principles of equality to resonate sufficiently among the general population, which was so estranged from the Jews, so as to truly accept the Jews as equal citizens.
Sincere adherence to the ideals of the revolution can secure for the Jews some formal status—important in itself—but not enough to make them in truth equal citizens. In short, he felt that for justice to prevail there was need for a certain human bond and sense of fraternity, between Jews and gentiles, which evidently was lacking, so as to include them in a serious way in the revolutionary scheme. I mention Pinsker here to indicate the idea that Justice as codified by abstract principles is not enough of a reliable motivating force to install justice. This does not mean that the abstract principle of equality lacks nobility—it did after all help Jews in France gain citizenship, which they lacked everywhere else—but it was a far cry from the promise of fraternity.
Fraternity and solidarity have an important instrumental value in providing the emotional bond and the right attitude for establishing a society with a genuine aspiration to be a just society. Abstract rational concern with justice is not enough of a psychological motivation, as Pinsker was quick to realize, based on the Jewish experience that came in the wake of the French revolution.
The claim is that the sense of justice is a faint passion unlike being incensed by injustice which is a passionate one. It is not justice that hurts us into action but injustice. I happen to be a believer in the force of negative politics that fights injustice, rather than positive politics that is meant to bring about a just society.
Solidarity as a force in the service of morality is first and foremost a force in the service of negative politics fighting injustice. There is a moral asymmetry between resisting injustice and pursuing justice; the former is both more urgent and more important, but on top of it there is an immense psychological a-symmetry. Fighting injustice is much more of a driving force and much more concrete than pursing justice based on abstract principles: abstract principles do not make people fight for justice any more than they make martyrs sing in the flames. Thus for example progressive taxation is a positive principle of justice, but it is a highly abstract principle for most of us. How many of us know at which bracket of taxation they are and how exactly they are doing in comparison to others?
In contrast, the glaring injustice of tax exemption for the nobles and the clerics, and putting the whole burden of taxation on the third estate, was strong enough to inflame revolution in France.
So where does it all leave us? Here is my scheme: gross injustice is a powerful force for creating a sense of solidarity, especially among those who suffer directly from the injustice. In creating an organized solidarity group, which is capable of collective action, what starts as a group motivated by injustice may turn into a group motivated enough to pursue positive justice, or rather motivated enough to pursue more justice. The idea is that a chain of action can be created by fighting injustice that may create a solidarity group that may end up by bringing about justice.
Justice In Vivo
Justice raises two separate sets of questions: One, what is a just society, and what procedure yields it. Two, given that we have an answer to question One, there is still the question of implementation: how to bring about a just society?
John Rawls made a famous suggestion as an answer to the first question (Rawls 1971). The procedure for arriving at a shared notion of justice should take place among free and equal individuals in a given society who are negotiating a system of fair social cooperation over time. The bargaining among the individuals is conducted under conditions in which the individuals do not know their own personal attributes.
The first set of questions is about justice in vitro, namely justice in an artificial environment; the second set of questions is about justice in vivo, namely, justice in the true world. I am interested in justice in vivo, namely in the implementation of justice, assuming that we already have an answer to the first set of questions. Justice in vitro is meant to be justice among individuals who are free and equal; justice in vivo is among individuals who are only somewhat free and somewhat equal.
The context of implementation determines both the scope of justice, namely, who in a given society is included in the scheme of justice, and also who in society is the agent of bringing about justice. Working class solidarity is predicated on the idea that the working class has special interest in promoting justice, since they are the people who stand to gain most from a just society. So the idea is that the working class, because of its special interest in justice, provides the agency for promoting justice. On this view, for implementation of justice, what is needed is to unveil the veil of ignorance, indeed to tear the veil apart.
My questions about justice in vivo concerns the conditions for bringing about a just society, and especially the role of social solidarity as a major condition in doing so. I assume that a sense of justice as fairness is evenly distributed in society and that it does not reside with a particular group of people who are more innately just than others, be they workers, students, educated middle class, or enlightened bureaucrats. I also assume that the sense of justice in and of itself is not enough of a motivating force to bring about justice.
Justice is to be brought about, if at all, by those who have more than a diffused general sense of justice; they must also have a prospect to be significantly—personally and collectively—better off in a just society.
The workers as a group capable of collective action seem to be the ones who can gain most in a just society. Note again, I don't impute to the workers any special moral virtues such as being creators, being close to nature, or being some sort of noble savages. They are like the rest of humanity, but they simply have more of a personal stake in justice, which the upper classes, privileged by the status quo, don't have. We may of course argue that the jobless poor have an even higher personal stake in justice than the working class; so why not to count on the poor to bring about a just society? The answer is that historically the workers, not the poor, proved to be capable of collective action of the relevant kind.
The idea so far is that a structural change in society, which would establish a society guided by justice, calls for powerful social forces for change and will not happen by ‘politics as usual’. The social forces in service of such a structural change should be motivated in such a way that they expect to do much better under justice than under the status quo. The forces they have to overcome are those that are doing better under the status quo than under justice. The idea is to locate a social class that bears this feature and also is capable of collective social action that can bring about such radical change.
Is There a Working Class to Speak Of?
The words ‘solidarity’ and ‘working class’ may strike you as nostalgic verging on kitsch. They may strike you as utterly anachronistic and irrelevant for describing the social and economic reality of the advanced post-industrial societies of today. The accusation of anachronism has two senses: one descriptive, one normative. The descriptive sense of anachronism says that the concept of the working class has lost its grip in advanced societies that are no longer organized around machine production. Machine production of the past had a particular type of working place and working class which was the breeding ground of the reformist left. But we are living in the advanced information-based economies of today which have dismembered the organized working class as we knew it. Hence to talk about solidarity with the working class is nothing but nostalgic talk unchecked by reality.
Still in the not so remote days in which the Tory canvasser approached me at the bus station, the reality of classes in the larger area of Oxford was awfully visible. Over 20,000 worked in the huge Morris Motors in Cowley, the bastion of the conscious working class. Today there are about 4000 workers there, and it is still the largest employer industry in Oxfordshire.
The normative sense of anachronism says more: the reformist left lost not only its power base, with the dispersion of organized labour but with it lost its moral relevance too. It is not only the industry in economically advanced societies that went through privatization, morality too went through privatization. Moral issues that concern gays, women, minorities, or for that matter the environment, became one-issue groups while the reformist left lost its ability to connect those issues into a coherent whole expressed in one convincing political platform and more importantly with a bonding sense of solidarities with these groups.
What is left of the traditional backbone of the reformist left, namely, organized labour, is estranged from those concerns. I admit, how can I not, that organized labour has been weakened quite considerably in advanced countries in recent years. It is still alive yet it is not kicking, nor does it seem to be able on its own to kick a serious structural change that a just society calls for.
The reformist left is the left that played a crucial role in shaping countries like Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, much as it had shaped New Zealand, Austria, and Australia. It is the left that had a great deal of influence in shaping Germany, Britain and France. The revolutionary left is the left that shaped countries such as the Soviet Union, Mao's China, Cuba and North Korea.
The reformist left, in spite of all its shortcomings and limitations, is an impressive success story. By impressive I do not mean heroic. Indeed, the reformist left by temperament and by creed is an antiheroic movement, yet it is responsible for many (un-heroic) successes. The revolutionary left is heroic if not by temperament then by creed (the creed of violent revolution). Yet the revolutionary left is responsible for colossal and cruel failures, albeit heroic failures.
The worry is that the changes that took place in advanced capitalism diminish considerably the force of the traditional working class to the point of social impotence.
Counting on the working class as the active force for bringing about a just society seems like an exercise in futility. In the legal tender for a class that would carry the struggle for a just society there are no bidders. It may very well be the case that all we are left with is politics as usual and by that I mean politics based on constant compromise between those who are favoured by the status quo and those who have a stake in changing it towards a more just society. The compromises that would be needed to reform the national health in the US may be such an example.
I make a distinction here between normative and prescriptive: Prescriptive instructs us how to make things better (more just); the normative how to make things good (just).
Politics, at its best, is guided by the prescriptive; social movements, at their best, are guided by the normative.
Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm (Morgenbesser)
My account so far is based on an unexamined assumption or paradigm. The assumption is that only social forces like classes can bring about structural social changes: to implement a just society calls for such a structural change.
The paradigm is based on the idea of the relative potency of social forces and the relative impotence of politics in its recognizable senses. Sidney Morgenbesser poked fun of this ubiquitous paradigm by asking his students: Mention three events in modern history the explanation of which is not the rise of the middle class.
Indeed the potency of social class and the impotence of politics were already seriously challenged with regard to the mother of all revolutions, the French revolution.
On one influential account, the one advanced by Francois Furet, there was no social revolution is France that brought to power capitalist bourgeoisie. There were no capitalists in France at the time of the revolution. The destruction of feudalism was a process carried out by the centralist monarchy and not by capitalists. The elite that carried out the events of 1789 consisted of a lot of people that betrayed their pre-modern class (Estate)—nobles and clerics and high bourgeois (not capitalist bourgeois). Had the forces of 1789 acted on their own, they would have achieved a compromise not unlike the one achieved by the glorious revolution in England. The joining of the masses deflected the revolution from such a likely course. It created a rift between the representative legislatures and those in the revolutionary clubs who claimed to be the people acting on the people's general will.
The French revolution on this account was a political revolution with republican democracy as its main outcome, and not a social revolution of bringing about capitalism to replace feudalism as its outcome. Those who advocate the latter—Jacobin Marxists of various stripes—do claim that the French revolution that started in 1789 made possible the rise of capitalism in France—a process that took almost a hundred years to achieve.
The relevance of this debate to our case is in raising the issue of whether major constitutive social changes are an outcome of politics, in which varied forces with varied interests make a radical change, or whether radical social changes are an outcome of collective action by social forces such as social classes, converging on class interests.
There are many controversial points about the French Revolution. For our purposes, however, of sketching the conditions for bringing about a just society, the relevant controversy is whether political activity can bring about a radical shift from the status quo or whether it can be brought about only through collective social action carried out by a social class: a class whose interests reside in radical deviation from the status quo.
My overall impression is that there is not much left of a working class in advanced societies which can effectively carry out a programme of bringing about a just society.
The working class, as a class, was thoroughly weakened. It was deserted by white collar workers, by the professionals and the skilled. The deserted blue collar workers, for fear of being déclassé, lack solidarity with immigrants who could enlarge the working class base and instead stress their national solidarity as an insurance against being déclassé. I can go on and enumerate more reasons for my strong sense that the traditional working class lost its clout as the major social force. There are of course workers in the traditional sense of workers, but proportionally there are less of them and they are less economically important and far less organized. So to count on the working class as a viable agent of change to a just society becomes less and less of a credible project.
Given the lack of a credible social agent in a form of a class for bringing about a just society, what we are left with is politics of compromise between those who gain from the status quo and those who can gain from radical deviation. If all this is true, the issue of implementation of a just society may suffer from lack of historical agent that can bring about a just society, unless and until politics can turn into a potent force to bring about such a change.