Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September-October 2000

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Wally Seccombe and D. W. Livingstone.
“Down to Earth People”: Beyond Class Reductionism and Postmodernism.
Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press, 2000, 134 pp. $Cdn. 18.95 paper. (1-55193-019-6)

Extending the final chapter of their book, Recast Dreams, Seccombe and Livingstone attempt to develop a reconstructed Marxist approach to the study of collective action that does not reduce group action and class consciousness to consequences of class relations at the point of production. Arguing that gender, generational, and race relations are not secondary to class relations and are important in understanding group consciousness and action, Seccombe and Livingstone avoid the traps of postmodern discourse by emphasizing the materialist basis of these relationships.

Seccombe and Livingstone develop their theoretical framework out of interviews with Hamilton, Ontario steelworkers and their spouses. In particular, they focus on two white couples, one older and one younger, so as to not miss generational differences. Through their interviews they are able to illustrate the importance of non-class characteristics in understanding forms of collective consciousness. By not abandoning a Marxist materialist thesis that “being determines consciousness,” they elaborate the notion by arguing that “the context-specific views of most people who come to occupy similar positions in an organization will tend to converge over time” (p. 23). They further extend the materialist thesis by noting that “social being is multi-sited, people’s interests are multilateral and often conflicted, their loyalties divided” (p.36). As such, Seccombe and Livingstone are able to account for the impact of race, gender, and even age on group consciousness without becoming class reductionist in the process.

Their findings suggest that while workers today may not exhibit a great deal of interest in union politics or a militant class consciousness, they are nonetheless critical of the exploitative nature of capitalism. Yet, the lack of familiarity with members of other racial groups provides strong barriers for forming coalitions across racial lines and strong generational differences exist over views on the need for alleviating racial and gender discrimination.

Based on their somewhat limited case study, Seccombe and Livingstone conclude that there are few signs that there will be a transformative class consciousness in the near future, though the resentment of the system is strong enough to suggest that there are possibilities of deep resentments of systemic inequalities that may indeed warrant coalition building across race and gender lines. What Seccombe and Livingstone have successfully shown is the salience of racial and gender identities as intersecting with class identities and experiences. This book, though limited in its scope, points the way to hopefully more fully developed materialist explanations that do not overlook the multiple identities real people experience, and the barriers that it can provide to working class collective action.

Rhonda F. Levine
Colgate University
September 2000
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