Class: What Do We Want, How Do We Get It
Life After Capitalism Talks
Class is a concept meant to highlight groups of people in the economy with similar interests and motives. Classes are groups that social activists should regard collectively.
If we think that the only determinant of class differences is ownership relations, we will emphasize capitalists and workers as classes, with variations for small farmers, or unemployed.
The key focus for our thinking will be whether people earn profits off privately owned productive property, or whether they sell their ability to do work for wages for their income. And, indeed, this is what people using class as a guide to practical choices have historically highlighted regarding analysis, vision, and strategy.
If, however, we think that not only property relations but also the distribution of economic responsibilities in the division of labor can create groups with their own shared consciousness and motives, things get more complicated.
If the kind of work that we do can separate us into classes, then between labor and capital we must consider the possibility of there being a third critically important class.
After capitalism, we have to consider that there could be a post capitalist economy that is still class divided.
And this is, indeed, my view. I believe that monopolizing empowering work on the one hand, as compared to doing only rote and obedient work on the other hand, in my view generates another important class division.
In the U.S., roughly two or three percent of the population constitute the capitalist ruling class. In contrast, the bottom 80% of the economic population works for low wages due to lacking any significant bargaining power.
The conditions of the 80%’s labor are entirely beyond their control, and they also have no say over anyone else’s labor. Their work is overwhelmingly rote, obedient, and disempowering. In these respects, while the term has gone out of vogue, they are wage slaves, the working class.
But what about successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers, financial officers, movie directors, high level professors, media executives, and so on?
What about, in other words, the people who inhabit the in-between region above rote workers but below capitalists? This is nearly 20% of the population.
Are these highly paid and powerful people workers just like short order cooks, assemblers, and coal miners are workers? Are they just better paid and more powerful, but otherwise in the same class?
I don’t think that that is a sensible way to conceptualize the economy. It seems to me much more useful to view this higher income and more influential group as a third class.
The crucial point, I think, is that this sector of economic actors has a relative monopoly on empowering work which in turn gives its members greater bargaining power and status than workers below.
These folks, and I want to call them the coordinator class, have great say over their own circumstances and over the work conditions and lives of those below.
Members of the coordinator class, that is, due to their position in the division of labor, have much higher incomes than working class people, more status than working class people, and most particularly, more influence than working class people.
Coordinator class members do sell their ability to work, it is true, but they gain their considerable status, power, and income from the positions they occupy in their respective industries…attracting and holding for themselves critically important knowledge, skills, and levers of daily decision making influence.
On average, of course, due to having different positions in the economy, classes tend to have different interests, income, influence, and status, and to also have different tastes, cultural inclinations, and views about one another, as well. They lead different lives, with different opportunities and burdens.
And it isn’t just that we can see this kind of difference between capitalists and workers.
The coordinator class also has its own lifestyles and behavior patterns, its own places to congregate, its own music and movie preferences, its own preferred stores to shop at, its own ways of dressing, foods to eat, even linguistic mannerisms, all not homogenous within the class, of course, but still on average separate from capitalists above and workers below.
My contention is, therefore, that within capitalism the coordinator class is between labor and capital and fundamentally different from both.
Much time could and should be given to describing the viewpoints and behaviors of the three primary classes, capitalists, coordinators, and workers, including their broad average tastes – where they shop, what they watch on tv and in movies, the music they prefer, the sports they play and watch, and especially their views of one another and whether they be disparaging, hostile, or subordinate to one another—and their ways of struggling to defend their interests, as well as their relative incomes, and their typical living and work conditions, of course.
Lacking time for all that, I want to make just one brief point in this regard.
In the U.S., my home country, most working people have never encountered the owners they work for. Their antipathy for the owner of the place that they work at is often quite abstract.
But they do continually encounter the paternalistic, arrogant, authoritative, dismissive managers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals of the coordinator class, who look down on them as inferior and as needing to be cared for and bossed around--and they often harbor great anger and even hatred toward this paternalistic and better-off class.
Of course, it is also true that workers ironically also give much of their lives to the dream that their children will rise to become one of these arrogant coordinators, a very striking irony of modern life.
But, lacking a lot of time for detail, I want to here emphasize the structural side of economic relations that gives rise to the life-defining class differences, and most importantly, to some of their implications for vision and strategy.
Capitalists, at the top of societies like the U.S., where I am from, of course own the means of production.
Bill Gates is an archetype example. On a good day for Wall Street, Dollar Bill is worth roughly as much as the whole population of Norway. Capitalists, own productive property, and as a result have ultimate legal say over economic outcomes. Their income derives from profits, and is often enormous.
Coordinators are a notch below capitalists but essential to them to maintain the daily operations of the economy.
Coordinators monopolize the conditions of daily economic decision making and circumstance that provide both bargaining power and the knowledge and skills essential to heavily influencing daily economic life.
Coordinators’ incomes are largely from wages, but coordinators’ bargaining power is very great due to their privileged knowledge. In the U.S. this leads to a doctor earning a half a million dollars yearly–or more–compared to an organized worker earning about a tenth of that, or an unorganized worker earning a twentieth of it, or less.
The coordinator has educational credentials and daily economic circumstances that continually reinforce his or her status and power.
As a manager, the coordinator class member controls workers below. As an engineer he or she defines workers’ working conditions. As a lawyer or doctor he or she adjudicates workers’ lives or dramatically oversees their quality.
Coordinators are above and control and heavily impact workers.
And finally, workers earn their income in wages, like coordinators, but they obey orders all day long, have rote tasks, often must ask permission even to go to the bathroom, have low incomes due to low bargaining power, and have no control of their own work situations or anyone else’s.
Workers are below coordinators, basically, they are order-takers.
Now what does any of this matter for vision and strategy, our focus for this panel?
Why does seeing that there are three key classs—capitalists, coordinators, and workers--each with their own specific situations and interests, change anything for us vis-a-vis what we want to attain for a good economy or how we feel that we can get it--as compared to if we saw just capitalists and workers pitted against one another?
I am going to presume that we all want classlessness. We all want a new economy in which some class of people does not by virtue of their economic circumstances dominate all other classes of people. We don’t want class rule of the many by the few.
That certainly means that we don’t want an economy in which a small number of owners with vast wealth and power rule over daily economic life. We don’t want Bill Gates and his peers to control the destinies of millions and even billions of people, with the broad population having not only less than appropriate influence, but effectively no influence at all.
Clearly we have to get rid of private ownership of productive property to attain a classless economy.
And, indeed, with a two class view of the economy, that could be the end of our agenda.
We could work to get rid of private ownership in the expectation that by doing that we would have gotten rid of the root cause of class difference and class rule. The rest would be details. And, indeed, this is a common viewpoint for many anti-capitalists.
But if we instead have a three class view, a new priority becomes evident. We don’t want to get rid of a capitalist class that resides above everyone only to elevate a coordinator class to ruling status, with roughly 20% ruling over roughly 80%.
Thus, we should want to get rid of not only private ownership of the means of production, but also of the division of labor that apportions more empowering and more appealing tasks only to a narrow subset of the population while confining the rest of the population to rote and obedient labors.
And we should want to get rid of modes of allocation that generate this division of labor.
In other words, the implication for vision of seeing three centrally important classes is that we have to not only get rid of the sources of the capital/worker distinction, but also to get rid of the sources of the coordinator/worker distinction.
We have to replace corporate divisions of labor with what I call balanced job complexes so that each participant in the economy has a mix of responsibilities that are on average comparable in their empowerment qualities to the mix that every other participant has. It is hard to imagine anything less that would suffice.
Either people have jobs that are arrayed hierarchically regarding the power afforded, or not. If they don’t, then it will be because we have balanced the tasks in each job so that in sum every job has a comparable empowerment effect on its practitioner.
Wanting to eliminate the coordinator worker class distinction also means we have to replace markets and or central planning with a cooperative and self-managing approach to allocation.
This would take more time than I have to fully demonstrate, but markets and central planning would propel the familiar corporate hierarchical divisions back into existence by their intrinsic logic and operations. We can’t retain them.
We can put these observations another way. What has gone under the name socialism in the past, in Russia, East Europe, China, etc., has in fact never been a classless economy.
It has always, instead, been an economy that structurally elevated what I have called the coordinator class of professionals, managers, lawyers, doctors, planners, and other empowered highly educated and credentialed employees into ruling status.
It has always given them derivatively greater wealth and power due to their monopolizing the economy’s empowering work.
So, the first implication of the three class view is that if we want a classless economy we have to reject what has gone under the label market socialism and centrally planned socialism, since these are class divided economies.
Indeed, they are literally, in the terms that I am using here, coordinatorist economies.
I think we ought to instead opt for the classless vision called participatory economics, or parecon, outlined in other “Life After Capitalism” sessions.
But be that as it may, the vision issue vis-a-vis class is simply … do we want coordinatorism which retains the corporate division of labor and market or centrally planned allocation that together generate rule by about 20% over 80% in the economy, or do we want a new set of institutions such as balanced job complexes, council self management, and participatory planning, in which all economic actors share justly in income, wealth, and decision-making influence?
I think if we want classlessness, we have to want the latter—but certainly we should reject the coordinatorist aims.
So what about strategy?
Well, if we favor the classless vision, as I do, the implications of being aware of three rather than two key classes are again quite important.
Imagine that someone suggested that we should tailor our movement organizations to reflect and highlight the culture and styles of the owners of capital, not of working people.
We should have our own owners inside our organizations, this person argues, and these people in our movements should literally own the movement’s assets and make all our key decisions.
The “movement owners” should be the main beneficiaries of gains that our movements win.
Moreover, our movements should spend most of their time catering to the tastes and preferences of owners outside, too, respecting them and orienting toward appealing to them, largely ignoring or even dismissing working people.
Obviously we would all laugh at anyone suggesting this while claiming they wanted a classless society.
It would be obvious that anyone saying we should have owners of the movement wasn’t interested in overcoming private ownership, but actually, instead, took private ownership for granted, and perhaps even admired it.
So what’s the point of this unreal example?
Well, consider an analogous situation but regarding the coordinator class.
Imagine a person suggesting that inside our movements some folks with more education, knowledge, and skills should monopolize the work positions that are empowering and by virtue of that should overwhelmingly determine movement policy and actions.
Suppose this person also said we should tailor our movement organizations to reflect and highlight the culture and styles of the coordinator class--and to try to effectively communicate with the intellectuals and media personalities in society rather than with working people.
We should have our own movement members with special credentials and a monopoly on skills and knowledge monopolize positions of power in our organizations and make all the key decisions.
Our “movement coordinators” should be the main beneficiaries of gains that our movements win.
Moreover, our movements should spend much of their time catering to the tastes and preferences of the highly educated and better off coordinator sectors in the mainstream as well, respecting them and orienting toward appealing to them, rather than toward working people.
I think if we are honest, we will have to admit that regarding our progressive efforts this scenario no longer sounds so utterly foreign. In fact, toned down just a tiny bit, we constantly encounter views like this. And even worse, to great degree, our movements show it.
Our movements often disparage working class culture and preferences of all kinds – music, tv, sports, movies, even working people’s newspapers, dress, and food.
Our movement meetings, often bear little resemblance to typical gatherings of working people, and instead far more closely resemble university assemblies, or law firm meetings.
Our organizations aren’t classless, but instead have structures that look very much like those of the institutions in society outside, with only the owner removed.
The division of labor typical of corporations, and of coordinatorism, persists in our movements. Many people do the onerous work. Only a few people make decisions and reap rewards.
So the strategic implication of seeing three key classes rather than two, is that we have to decide how our movements navigate a more complex class terrain.
How do they structure themselves, celebrate, and communicate so as to move toward classlessness rather than moving toward elevating coordinators as a new ruling class, certainly different from the old ruling class, but just as certainly not our idea of no ruling class at all.
I think some strategic implications ought to be pretty obvious…such as that our movements should not have donation and dues structures that are less progressive than capitalist income tax programs.
We should not have hierarchies of control in our organizations nearly identical to those of corporations so that the only big difference in the structure of our think tanks, publishing operations, and movements from those of the mainstream outside, is size—not their internal organization, their commitment to participation and democracy, and so on.
Having a three-class perspective due to highlighting the division of labor as well as ownership, therefore leads me, for example, to favor replacing corporate organization with what I call balanced job complexes, and to favor replacing markets and central planning with what I call participatory planning.
And it also leads me to have a different attitude regarding the internal organization and values of our movements prioritizing making them congenial and empowering for working people, rather than having them dominated by and reflecting the interests of coordinator class people.
I want to make one more point, likely controversial, but I think important to mention before I conclude.
Marxism has taught those who desire a better world a whole lot about many aspects of capitalism and society. It has many wise and important insights, of course. But the fact that it overwhelmingly has a two class perspective is a serious problem.
Two horrible results of that problem have been first, a strategic willingness to employ authoritarian political organizations as a means to a liberatory end without realizing that these hierarchical structures are perfectly suited not to attaining classlessness, but to elevating the coordinator class to ruling status.
And second, putting forth a vision that is in fact coordinatorist in its implications.
I don’t mean here that the values generally enunciated as socialist are instead coordinatorist, nor even the vague descriptions of socialism--both are most often quite worthy and wonderful. But values and vague descriptions are one thing, and serious institutional aims that we commit ourselves to attaining, are another.
I have heard even presidents of the U.S. give speeches with plenty of nice values here and there, but I knew, of course, that their institutional commitments made such rhetoric irrelevant, and that this was so even if one of the presidents, by some happenstance, actually did, to a degree, believe what he was saying.
This is actually one of the insightful things that Marxism teaches—we shouldn’t judge movements or organizations by what they claim. We should judge them by what they do, and by the internal logic and structure of their allegiances and the implications these have.
Well, following this instruction, the unvarnished truth is that what has gone under the label socialist--and again, I mean the institutions, not the rhetoric--has been central planning and or market allocation, remuneration for power or output, and corporate workplace organization with hierarchical class rule by coordinators over workers.
What has been called socialism, in other words, has in fact been coordinatorism. What has been claimed to be a strategy and organization leading to classlessness has instead been strategy and organization leading to rule by the coordinator class.
So it seems to me that if we abide Marxism’s teaching on this point, or just plain good sense, for that matter, we have to say that even despite the best inclinations and desires of some of its leaders and most of its rank and file, Marxism Leninism has been a movement manifesting the wills, preferences, and interests of the coordinator class, not of the working class.
So, to conclude, my view of class regarding vision and strategy is that we need to understand
…not only property relations but also divisions of labor as generating class divisions,
…that we need to understand three primary classes in capitalist economies, not two,
…that we need to aim for classlessness which means rejecting markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor, which includes rejecting centrally planned coordinatorism and market coordinatorism,
…and which also means, I think, advocating workers and consumers councils, self management, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning,
…and finally, that we need to develop an approach to social change and to our own organizations and movements that is congenial to and empowers working class people and not coordinator class people,
…a movement that is built around and for people sincerely committed to classlessness and not built around and for people happy to retain and defend class privileges in society and even inside the movement itself.
The are three main classes, not two.
And Classlessness needs to be our goal and also a big part of our movement methods.