Chapter Two: Refining Four Views
By Michael Albert at Oct 10, 2010
Chapter Two: Refining Four Views
[This is a draft, for comment but not circulation, please. I have also added new drafts of the Introduction and Chapter One, on the HelpAlbert Group Page. The group is an experiment in what might be called public writing...]
If we believe society may be usefully described as involving four spheres of life, or if we at least pursue that view to see how far it can take us, then in this chapter we can try to agree on some additional possible tools for understanding each of those four spheres themselves and next chapter we can consider the four spheres as they interact and change over time.
The General Character of Social Spheres
One way to rapidly progress is to make some generalizations that apply to all four spheres of social life - kinship, culture/community, polity, and economy.
We know we are particularly concerned with understanding defining institutions that contour people’s options. And of course we know we are particularly concerned with reasons why groups of people might seek change to escape limitations or oppressions that institutions impose on them.
In the various acts of family life, procreation, and socialization, of community identification and celebration, of political decision making and adjudication, and of production/consumption and allocation and especially as a result of the requirements of the roles for carrying out those acts people are typically divided into groups with different access to influence, status, material well being, and all factors necessary to quality of life.
Some groups get many benefits and few discomforts. Other groups get few benefits and many discomforts.
Further, these contending groups, defined by the the roles people occupy, often gain or lose in opposition to one another. It isn’t just that one group does better and another does worse. It is that groups often contend for benefits. For one to get more, another will have to get less. We all know this is true and not even a little doubtful.
Men gain time, influence, and material advantages relative to women, and heterosexuals relations to homosexuals, and also around matters of age, due to kinship/sexist hierarchies.
Various cultural communities (such as U.S. whites) compared to other cultural groups (such as U.S. blacks) do better due to community/racist or sometimes ethnic or national or other cultural hierarchies.
Owners do better compared to, say, managers, and both do better compared to workers due to economic/class hierarchies.
And finally, those who have legislative or judicial power do better relative to those who don’t, due to political/bureaucratic hierarchies.
Additionally, these group oppositions are all largely zero sum. The better off groups enjoy gains proportionally as the worse off groups suffer losses. Taken all together this is a complex claim, but it is still obvious to virtually everyone.
Also obvious, though often not made evident, in each case, when there is a group above and a group below, while the particular features differ for the different hierarchies, there are also significant similarities.
Mainly, members of groups on top - in each sphere of life - will not typically get up each morning and smugly tell themselves, if they are introspective at all: “we are on top because the system is rigged to our advantage, and, as well, we act to keep those who are beneath us down there by whatever means we can muster.”
Rather, very often, those above will confidently convince themselves “we are superior and deserve our advantages while those below are inferior or at least don’t deserve as much.” They will add that :our doing better benefits everyone, because we are smarter, more creative, harder working, etc.” They may even tell themselves that those below “wouldn’t even enjoy the benefit were they to have them, as much as we do - they just don’t have the taste for it.” And in any event they conclude that for the most part, “all is just.”
And similarly, those on the bottom won’t always furiously tell themselves: “we are on the bottom unjustly, because the system is rigged to keep us down here, and because those above us work to keep it that way, and we damn well ought to change it.”
Rather, those below may retiringly tell themselves, “we belong down here, we didn’t try hard enough, or we weren’t able enough, or we were unlucky, or our kind just doesn’t have what it takes.” They may add, “we do better with those above, above, because they are better at what they do and we get trickle down benefits.” Or they may tell themselves, “We like it down here, less responsibility, less hassle.” And they conclude, that while painful, “all is just, or, at least unalterable.”
Some of these views may well correspond to things you, dear reader, and indeed we all, sometimes feel, or think, or wonder or worry about. However, since in this book we are interested not in justifying current oppressive relations, but in changing them, we will want to understand elite self delusions somewhat, and what is wrong with them - but much more so, we will want to chart out useful rebellious views and understand, as well, what’s wrong with but also the tenacity of the self defeating views that sometimes bind we who are suffering to our subordination.
We can obviously anticipate that useful dissident perspectives are going to be views that elaborate the interests of the people at the bottom into an understanding, a vision and strategy suitable for eliminating the hierarchies they suffer. That will hold for all four spheres - assuming better relations are possible.
Yes, being on the bottom often does lead one to adopt views that seem to make sense but which cement one’s position below, placing the blame for it on oneself and cutting off any thoughts about changing the situation. But that is obviously not what we favor and seek.
On the other hand, being on the bottom also sometimes leads people to examine their situation, define alternative arrangements to pursue, seek levers by which to win changes, and gain insights to fuel each investigation. And, indeed, in history this has happened repeatedly, and has led to various oppositional radical and sometimes revolutionary perspectives that advance the interests of those below.
So we might expect to be able to look at these rebellious perspectives that have emerged in history to find tools we can use in our own future, too. And indeed, we can do just that, quite successfully, and largely without need for additional fundamental alterations, just some tweaking and refining, at least for three of the four spheres.
Three Spheres the Easy Way
Suppose we start with issues of gender and sexuality.
On average, women and homosexuals live at the bottom of sex gender hierarchies and have, over time, in their best efforts, elaborated concepts and ideas for understanding the attitudes of people in sexist hierarchies, for understanding the effects of the institutions at work creating and maintaining sexist hierarchies, and at least to some extent for understanding alternative institutions that might do better than existing kinship institutions.
Taken together, we can reasonably call all these frameworks elaborating the interests of women and gays feminism. As forewarned in the introduction, we could now produce a lengthy book just recounting and summarizing the insights about all manner of insightful and important historical and societal relations that this approach has produced, but we will for now have to settle instead for only some central insights, learning more, however, as we proceed later.
The functions in the kinship sphere are those of family life and particularly those related to bringing into the world and raising the new generation and maintaining the living units, and conducting sexual and daily life interactions more broadly, as well. The roles associated with these functions are of course incredibly diverse, but some central ones are man and woman - I will explain in a second why these are roles - mother and father, and for that matter sister and brother, uncle and aunt, and so on - as well as gay, straight, and bisexual.
Feminist analysis has explained the features of the hierarchies and the tremendous toll they take on women and gays, and to a degree even on men and heterosexuals, as compared to the better circumstances we all might enjoy in our lives. And to an extent feminists have also explained, though without full agreement as yet, the origins of the sex/gender hierarchies and have elaborated some ideas about alternative roles and structures that would eliminate those hierarchies and instead create and maintain just relations in households and sexual and familial relations.
Why are man and woman roles, you might wonder, given that they are, you might assert, biologically determined?
Well, it’s because while Samantha may be a woman and Samuel a man, biologically, the behaviors and responsibilities they carry and the habits and preferences they tend to arrive at go way beyond their biological differences. Once this is said, it is pretty obvious, isn’t it?
Being a man or a woman in a society that has a sexist hierarchy is very different than being a man or a woman in a society in which men and women are literally different only by virtue of actual biological imperatives.
Suppose we even take being a mother or a father. Again, you might think, those are not roles in an institution - believing that being a mother or a father is defined by biological dictates. And, yes, biology is certainly part of it, of course. But being a mother can mean - as it typically does in our society - having an array of very specific nurturing and caring and cleaning and organizing responsibilities, among many others, different from fathers do but which have literally nothing to do with biologically having to give birth or breast feed.
Likewise, being a father can and typically in our society does carry with it a very different set of responsibilities and expectations than being a mother, often financial and disciplinary, that are more authoritative and far less time consuming, and that again have zero to do with not being able to biologically give birth or breast feed.
And of course the non biological attributes of being a mother or father, and even how their biological aspects are undertaken, and thus what is the same thing, how the aspects associated with role definitions that are imposed by institutions are undertaken, can change due to institutions changing, as has happened, to a degree, in the last 45 years or so - while the actual biological imperatives are far more fixed.
We don’t need to get too much into all of this just yet. We will look more deeply at the roles and the implications sexist roles have for people filling them and especially learn more about long standing feminist insights when we talk about vision and strategy, thereby helping to fill out our intellectual tools bearing on kinship and gender/sexuality. For now, let’s just assume that much of what feminism asserts can be carried over, pretty much as it currently is, to be part of our development of a more multi focused perspective. We’ll test and act on that belief as we proceed.
Next, suppose we consider issues of cultural community.
The situation is quite similar to what we found for sex/gender relations. Historically communities that have suffered the indignities and gross violations of racism and other cultural hierarchies such as ones based on nationalism, religious bigotry, etc., have sometimes given in to despair and even resigned to their situations while trying to carve out the best possible circumstances within the dictates of the oppressive limits they confront. Other times, however, subordinated communities have rebelled and have developed ways of thinking about their plight, including developing related concepts and commitments about racism and other cultural oppressions that we can pretty much adopt in full.
The heart of this has been understanding that racial, religious, and other community hierarchies typically involve communities arrayed in conflict, often with one dominating and seeing itself as superior to one or more others, and with institutions throughout society elevating members of that dominant community while subordinating members of the subordinate communities.
And of course an additional key insight has been that all this is overwhelmingly social in nature. Power and material advantages of one group over another fuel the views group members hold. No real biological boundary exists between them - there is no serious biological basis for cultural community distinctions. Rather role differences deliver unequal circumstances and benefits fueling often derogatory self conceptions and misconceptions of others, all backed by power differences which create and sustain cultural hierarchies. And, as with sex gender relations, as we proceed particularly with issues of vision and strategy, we will learn more about all this, even as we borrow and incorporate into our own views with only modest refinements many related insights.
Next we have issues of polity. Again, critics of existing political relations - and in particular I have in mind the best practitioners of what has often been called anarchism - have developed highly useful insights that we can largely adopt and work with in our own developing perspective. The focus they have had has been on the institutional creation of a political apparatus serving narrow interests, existing separate from and above the population, and ruling over the population, instead of being an extension from the population and being limited by and manifesting the will of the population.
As with the feminist and we might say nationalist, or I prefer intercommunalist, schools of sex/gender and cultural thought, this school of political thought too can be elaborated at far greater length, and many features of its wisdom will become clearer as we talk more about vision and strategy. One, for example, is the observation, long asserted but rarely seriously considered - other than by anarchists - that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, which means, basically, that if some have excessive power they will rationalize it in ways leading them to try to accrue even more, and to use it from on high - with the results being that much worse, the more power is centralized into few hands. For now though, we don’t see grave and fundamental problems in the basic ideas of anti authoritarian projects so great that we would need to begin by rejecting or dramatically amending their perspective. Rather in building our own more encompassing framework, we need mostly to incorporate the political insights of these practitioners, meshing them seamlessly with the best insights of the feminist and intercommunalist schools, as well,making modifications mainly - as we will see next chapter - so that each respects and incorporates the wisdom of the other two.
One Sphere, the Economy, Takes A Little More Work
The fourth sphere, economics, presents a different problem than the other three. Regarding economics, it turns out we need a little more initial innovation to make any useful progress later.
Typical dissident understandings of the economy are certainly in large part informative. They pay attention to material inputs and outputs and also to produced services, but also pay attention to the workers and consumers involved in these acts. These perspectives, typically elaborated in anti capitalist movements and struggles, address production, consumption, and allocation, unearth some key roles regarding all these, and seek to understand the implications of those roles for contending groups. So far, so good, much like for the three other spheres discussed above.
But, next, something profoundly important goes awry. Pretty much all dissidents examining economics agree that the key to understanding economic prospects and possibilities is understanding contending groups, called classes, and the attitudes, behaviors, and interests largely imposed on them by their economic roles. But, almost all dissident approaches to economics also make what we think is a large error, finding one critically important aspect of economics bearing on its creation of contending classes, but at the same time obscuring another equally important and different aspect - thus yielding, in sum, a fundamentally flawed picture.
The usual approach goes more or less like this. Economies must produce and then distribute so people can then consume. In the type economy we currently endure, different ownership relations and the roles they impose are at the heart of generating the working class and the owning class as contending actors with different motives, agendas, and views of each other. The analysis of this contentious relationship is insightful and can, in many respects, be borrowed. As we will see as we proceed, that analysis uncovers how private ownership of workplaces and production assets leads to pursuit of profit by owners, and to pursuit of better salaries by workers - and thus leads to owners trying to lengthen the work day and speed up and intensify work, while leading to workers wanting shorten work days and enjoy less frantic and dangerous conditions, and so on. All of this and many similar insights are indeed important for efforts to change society. After all, this built in pursuit of profit is one of the key reasons why society fails to further values we believe in.
But here is the problem. Economics is not just centrally affected by who owns what. Rather, people are divided into contending classes due to occupying different positions (roles) in the economy, and, due to that, having different and opposed interests. One factor causing such differences is, indeed, different ownership positions - as in some people owning means of production, and others just owning their own ability to do work. However, another factor causing us to occupy different classes is not about owning property, but, is instead about the type of work we do in the economic roles we occupy.
Work, like all activity, affects those who do it. In modern corporate capitalist economies, among those folks beneath the top owners who constitute just one or two percent of the population - we all work. We all sell our ability to do work, to the owners, and we get wages for the work we do, this being a relation that used to be called, wage slavery.
However, it turns out that while getting wages instead of earning profits does impose tremendous differences in circumstances and behaviors, there is another demarcation that divides all those who get wages into not one, but instead two classes.
In this view, which we adopt, at the top we have owners, or capitalists. At the bottom we have workers. But in between labor and capital, we have another class, what I would like to call the coordinator class where by this group I refer all those who do largely empowering work for wages - unlike workers below who do overwhelming disempowering, rote, tedious work. And unlike owners above, who earn not wages, but profits.
By empowering work I mean that this group, which is roughly about 20% of the workforce, does, each day, tasks that convey to them self confidence, social skills, workplace knowledge, and also habits and experience of workplace daily decision making, all of which, taken together, empowers them. In contrast, the more typical workers below do rote, tedious, repetitive, and often dangerous tasks which convey only exhaustion, reduced health, personal isolation, habits of obedience, and more generally the opposite of empowerment which we may call disempowerment.
So the claim here is that unlike the situation for sex/gender, race/ethnicity, and power, past efforts at developing a perspective suited to understanding economics from the angle of those at the bottom of society’s class hierarchies, workers, have been very seriously flawed. Kin, cultural, and political approaches which we borrow from without having to fundamentally correct them, correctly identify contending constituencies and accurately sensitize us to all the key oppressive dynamics. The economic approaches that have in the past typically characterized dissent, however, have focussed on two key classes where in fact they should have focussed, in our view, on three. They have highlighted some kinds of economic oppression (related to maintaining profit seeking), but largely ignored or even at times denied other kinds (related to maintaining the division between coordinators above and workers below).
How could this happen? Well, a rightful rejection of economic oppression got sidetracked, one might say, into very powerfully and aggressively examining one set of relations (property) but away from very powerfully and aggressively also examining another set of relations (having to do with empowerment).
This is not a small problem. And it isn’t just that the twenty percent in the coordinator class do much better than workers below, and contend with owners above. It is also that a two class view - denying the importance of a third class - corrupts dissident ability to envision a truly classless economy - which will be one of our aims as we proceed. It causes dissidents with the two class view to arrive at a vision they think or they assert aims to benefit workers, but which in fact elevates coordinators above workers.
In this book, therefore, we have to not only somewhat massage and better integrate with the rest of our understanding past economic insights - as we have to do for past gender/sex, community, and political insights - we also have to more fundamentally transform past economic insights.
We must add to an understanding of owners and workers, an understanding of coordinators existing between owners and workers. We must highlight coordinators trying to defend and enlarge their relative monopoly on empowering work and the great advantages in circumstance and income it gives them relative to workers below, in capitalism, and trying, as well, to escape subordination to owners above, in a whole new economy which is, however, not classless but instead ruled by them, above workers.
Our claim, in other words, is that a two class focus on those who profit and those who work for wages doesn’t give us a full and accurate, but instead an incomplete and fatally flawed picture of our economies. Coordinator class members - doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and so on - are not just another kind of capitalist, or another kind of worker. They are not part of the class above, of the class below, or a mix of the two. Instead, they are a class unto themselves, with very different circumstances than workers below and owners above, and contending with both.
And most important, the coordinator class can elaborate its interests into a program of their own, and often have done so, even winning changed economies that they rule in place of owners who are eliminated, but still operating above workers who remain subordinate. This is the most insightful meaning of the song lyric, “bring in the new boss, same as the old boss.” In fact, the new boss is the same only in the sense of still being above, while workers are still below. The actual new basis of rule, and the new behaviors - the different roles - perpetuating injustice change with a new top boss, but still undesirable.
Regarding the four spheres of society, as we proceed our aim is going to be to understand how to accomplish their relevant functions without, however, generating old or new hierarchies of wealth, power, dignity, etc.
For the economy, this will mean we want classlessness. But you can’t get from class divided, to classless, if you fail to notice a key class which can become a new ruling class. This isn’t just a plausible hypothesis or a clever prediction. It has happened repeatedly in history. What has been called socialism in the past, meaning an economy guided by the interests of and ruled by the workers, has instead typically been an economy that has eliminated the owning class, and eliminated the role of owning workplaces, but has retained the coordinator class, and with them the role of ruling workplaces and the overall economy by a few.
We don’t want this new boss in place of the old boss. We must, therefore, attend to this group, the coordinator class, in our thoughts about what exists (how the coordinator class relates to owners above and workers below), about what we want (how new relations will eliminate the social relations that produce the coordinator class in the economy and society), and how we get to our goals (how our strategies have to operate to successfully address this element of class rule, as well as ownership elements).
Okay, we now have our four spheres, we can borrow from past insights to enhance our understanding of three, and borrow some and generate some, for understanding the fourth. But how to the spheres intersect and entwine. And how do they change over time. Those are the next topics we address, next chapter.