February 28, 2024

The Mirror Stage of the Upper Class

Boris Groys

René Magritte, La Reproduction interdite (Not to Be Reproduced), 1937.

During recent decades, the notion of class has mostly appeared as part of the famous triad “race, gender, class.” When one looks at this triad, one has an impression that “class” functions within social topology on the same level as “gender” and “race”—that these are the parameters that fix the social position of an individual in three-dimensional public space. However, when speaking about class we inevitably think about the history of class struggle—the conflict between the poor and the rich. What is the goal of this struggle? From the traditional leftist, socialist perspective, the goal of class struggle was and still is the creation of a classless society of economic equality. This means that from a historical perspective, classes should disappear. The class struggle presupposes class solidarity. However, when the struggle is won, this specific form of solidarity disappears—because classes disappear—and solidarity becomes universal.

The current thematization of race and gender is often explained by the necessity of describing and overcoming a specific form of exploitation and oppression to which certain minorities are subjected. This explanation is totally understandable, and a politics that aims to improve the lot of minorities deserves unrestricted support. In fact, this was never overlooked by socialist movements, which always supported the emancipation of women and the liberation of colonized nations. However, there is a fundamental difference between the category of class and the categories of race and gender. The differences between races and genders are not historical; they are not dependent on specific historical modes of work and ownership. They do not reflect the external relationship of human bodies to the means of production but are inscribed into human bodies themselves. Therefore, race and gender cannot be considered as something that can or should disappear at the end of the historical process. On the contrary, contemporary theoretical discourses and artistic practices value racial and gender identities as contributing to human diversity—today and in the future. This difference in historical perspectives dictates a difference in actual politics.

Class solidarity is a horizontal solidarity—solidarity among the poor directed against the rich. If somebody who was rich later becomes poor, they can expect solidarity from other poor people. If somebody who was poor becomes rich, they become a class enemy. Not only is class division supposed to disappear at the end of history; during the historical process, individuals and whole social groups shift their positions in relation to the class division and, thus, also change their class identity. Such fluidity is impossible in relation to race and gender. As far as I experience solidarity with other individuals of my race and gender, I do not give up my solidarity if they become poor or rich, since their gender and race remain the same. My solidarity cuts across the line of class division. So one can say that if class solidarity is a horizontal solidarity, solidarity based on race and gender is a vertical solidarity—since it includes poor and rich, powerful and powerless, successful and unsuccessful if they belong to the same gender and race.

Accordingly, the goal of the historical process begins to look different. It is no longer a classless society but a class society in which the ethnic and gender composition of the upper class reflects the ethnic and gender composition of the lower classes. Such a society is based on vertical solidarity between the rich and the poor: if every ethnic, gender, or, more generally, cultural identity is presented in the same proportion in the upper class as in the lower classes, the cumulative effect of vertical solidarities among the representatives of these identities produces total solidarity between classes. Here class is no longer considered as potentially disappearing at the end of history. On the contrary, it becomes transhistorical—like race and gender. The class division between the rich and the poor transforms into a line separating the wider population from its political and economic representation—similar to the line that divides a person from their image in the mirror. Crooked mirrors are unsatisfying because they distort the proportions of our face and body. However, when we are confronted with a non-crooked, correct mirror that reflects these proportions “as they really are,” we are satisfied with the mirror. Thus, world history begins to look like a search for an upper class that is the non-crooked mirror of the low classes. And the vehicle of this search is identity politics.

This perspective requires successful women to practice solidarity with their less successful sisters and successful people of color to help their less successful brothers and sisters. And it requires non-successful minorities to support, admire, and imitate the success of their wealthy and prominent representatives. It is obvious that this identitarian vertical solidarity directly contradicts horizontal class solidarity. When some female or Black individuals change their position in the class struggle—becoming rich and, thus, moving from the side of the oppressed to the side of the oppressors—the horizontal solidarity of the poor should exclude them. But we don’t hear a call for such a break—a call that would be similar to the Marxist call to the working classes of European nation-states to break solidarity with the capitalist classes of their nations.

Today, the success of the few begins to be seen as the promise of the success for many, if not for all of the same minority. One begins to glorify the fact that now a woman can command a bomber aircraft (without asking if bombing other people is a good practice). One celebrates representatives of racial minorities who accumulate big fortunes and become visible in the media. In films, TV, and novels one favorably presents princesses and queens of the feudal past as examples of female power. Female and Black superheroes emerge on the side of traditional white male heroes. Of course, one can say: great, let it be. And indeed, one is glad to contemplate this new diversity. The problem is this: today the glorification and celebration of the successful representation of “minorities” inside the ruling class is presented as “leftist.” And this is what is really surprising. To be on the left traditionally meant taking the side of the poor against the rich—not the side of a princess against a prince. Today, to be left more and more means to take the side of the “minority” members of the upper class against the “majority” members of the upper class. Thus, one criticizes the glass ceiling that prevents women from becoming CEOs of big corporations—instead of asking if becoming a CEO is a goal that leftists should approve of at all.

In fact, this new vertical solidarity becomes directed against the poor and exploited because it suggests that the dominant order would be perfectly okay if only the racial and gender composition of the upper class reflected the statistical distribution of the identity characteristics of the general population. Individual success stories of the representatives of different minorities are celebrated as great victories and signs of social change. But of course, they change nothing. Ordinary people of all colors and genders remain where they always were. The economic distance between the superrich and the mass of the population is growing—and the globalized class of superrich includes traders from Wall Street and CEOs from Silicon Valley alongside sheikhs from the UAE and Hong Kong bankers. Race and gender play no role here—only money. In the nineteenth century Marx called for the creation of an International of the workers—an International that was supposed to be opposed to the national bourgeoisie of European and non-European countries. Today, we have a complete reversal: the internationalized bourgeoisie controls a working class fragmented by different identities. It is true that under the pressure of calls for proportional representation, political and economic elites have become more and more inclusive. However, they include only those who are ready to defend their class interests—in a very traditional, Marxist understanding of the word. Their bodies might look like the bodies of their brothers and sisters from the lower classes but their minds work in a different way.

So the working population begins to feel that the elites have betrayed them and that now is the time to do something about it. The question is: what is to be done? Historically, we know only two answers to this question: socialism or nationalism. It is obvious that, at least at the moment, the populations of Western countries reject the socialist choice and tend to accept the nationalist choice. The reason for this is also pretty obvious: it is an effect of the victory of neoliberal globalism over socialist internationalism at the end of the Cold War. Indeed, during the historical period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western left was systematically destroyed—first of all the Western communist parties and then social democracy. All socialist models, radical or moderate, were proclaimed to be economically inefficient, historically discredited, and obsolete. So during recent decades a certain consensus has formed: socialism is economically inefficient and, generally, bad. However, there is one aspect that liberalism shares with socialism: internationalism. Both reject the nationalist choice. But there is, of course, a difference between socialist internationalism and neoliberal globalism.

Socialist internationalism is based on international solidarity, whereas neoliberal globalism is based on global competition. Socialism, being based on solidarity, is inefficient in the context of universal competition. If one believes that competition is what people should do, socialism is automatically discarded. And that is, indeed, what neoliberal ideology believes: competition makes business flourish. Of course, belief in competition also presupposes that the competition is fair. But who is responsible for the fairness of global competition, and how do we differentiate fair competition from unfair competition?

And here “leftist” identity politics finds its place. It says: fair competition leads to a non-distorted, non-crooked identity composition of the upper class—a composition that correctly reflects the identity composition of the lower classes. This criterion generates protest insofar as the upper class remains a crooked and distorting mirror. But what is supposed to happen as a result of this protest? What is the goal of identity politics? Not the coming of a classless society but of a society in which the upper class proportionally includes all the identities that can be found in the lower classes—even if the majority of the population remains as poor and exploited as before. When this goal is achieved, identity politics will turn from the critique of capitalism to its affirmation. This turn is already felt today as more and more newcomers from previously neglected identities are celebrated when they enter the upper class, and thereby un-distort the social mirror. If we see that people who share our identity are successful and rich, we, so it seems, have no reason to deplore the fact that we still remain losers and poor because there is a chance that our children or granchildren will win the competition for the best representatives of their identities and emerge in the magic mirror of success at some point in the future.

Marxism, Race & Ethnicity
Class, Identity Politics

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.


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