Class struggle wasn’t a figment of Marx’s imagination. A struggle between workers the classes that dominate them is a consant, an on-going reality. This struggle happens because of structures in society that give certain groups power over other groups.
Class is about power that arises in the system of social production. Apart from work that we do at home for ourselves and members of our own families, there is a vast network of work relations where people are doing things for other people. This is what I mean by social production. This isn’t just manufacturing. Transporation, systems of tele-communications, public utilities, retail stores, health care and other services â€” these spheres of work are all part of social production.
We are warranted in supposing that class exists because it is a powerful tool for understanding what actually happens in society, for explaining differences in patterns of behavior of different groups of people, helping us to a
Class systems arise because of structures that give certain people power over others, and over the wealth created, in social production. Of course, some people are children, not yet actively engaged in the social economy in most cases. Others are retired or unemployed. When I talk about social classes I assume that children are a part of the social class of their parents. I assume that retired people are still a part of the class they were in before they retired. This makes sense because the class that people grow up in shapes their life prospects and their loyalties. A person’s class situation before retirement will affect things like how long they are likely to live or how economically secure they will be in retirement.
There are two structures in contemporary
A second structure that creates class division became more pronounced about a century ago when capitalism evolved into its advanced, corporate form. The big concentrations of capital that came together at the end of the 19th century had the resources to attack the control over technology and work that had been the possession of the traditional crafts. “Efficiency experts” like Frederick Taylor advocated systematic analysis of the tasks in jobs, removing the conceptual and decision-making tasks from the shopfloor and concentrating them into a newly elaborated hierarchy of management and professional positions. The purpose of this was to shift the balance of power to the advantage of management. This did not happen smoothly as workers fought back.
From the 1890s to the 1920s the changes to the organization of production pumped up a new class of professional managers, and engineers and other professional advisors to management.
The capitalists had to cede some power to the coordinator class at the beginning of the 20th century because their ventures had grown too large for the owners to manage directly. Controls over workers crafted by the coordinator class are typically sold to the stockholders as a way to raise profits, but in reality this is not the only purpose at work. The concentration of control in their own hands empowers the coordinator class and makes them central to the system of production. Connections, a
Recognizing the existence of the coordinator class helps us to explain who the ruling class is in the various Communist countries. The Leninist revolutions eliminated the capitalist class, creating systems of public ownership of means of production, but the working class continued to be subordinated and exploited. These revolutions revealed that the coordinator class has the power to be a ruling class.
The working class is that section of the economically active population who are subordinate to management power, with little or no formal power over the definition or control of their work, and no supervisory power over other workers. Michael Zweig estimates that the working class is 62 percent of the American population(4). This group is varied in pay levels and other conditions â€” from secretaries or administrative assistants in offices, carpenters and electricians on building sites, to airline baggage-handlers, bus and train drivers, vehicle mechanics, meatcutters in packing plants, and checkers and baggers at the local supermarket.
Classes are not static. Powerful capitalist or coordinator groups may seek to cut down the independence of some groups. For example, Michael Zweig suggests that RNs, despite their four-year college degrees, have working class jobs due to the degree of control they are subject to. I have worked in software firms where large projects are Taylorized, with engineers assigned responsibility for coding some narrow fragment, with little or no input on the overall design. In school systems, teachers can find themselves up against administrators and educational consulting firms that want to put in place a more corporate-style division of labor: Curriculum and teaching methods would be defined in advance, and teachers would be expected to just execute a pre-cooked agenda. On the other hand, in defending their conception of professional autonomy, teachers may be reluctant to identify too closely with cafeteria and janitorial workers and others in the working class.
In other cases, powerful groups try to mask the real power relationships with changes in formal titles or legal arrangements. Employers of taxi and truck drivers, for example, have used the idea of “independent contractor” status as a way to reduce the power the drivers can achieve through union organization. But the formal contractor status doesn’t free the drivers from the real power of the employers.
The dynamics of economic change and conflict make the class line fuzzy. Thus between the coordinator class and the working class there are a large number of people in lower-level professional positions who share some of the features of the coordinator class, such as college educations and greater autonomy in their work, while also being subject to management power. Teachers, writers, commercial artists, and programmers are often in this sort of position. Sometimes these groups form unions and struggle with management. The proletarianization of professional groups often puts them into a more worker-like position. Given their situation, the lower-level professionals are potential allies of the working class(5).
The working class and the lower-level professionals together are at least three-fourths of the population of the
Liberation and Organization
The strongest ethical arguments are rooted in human nature, in the capacities and needs of human beings. The human capacity for self-management provides us a strong argument against the class system.
We all have the ability to foresee possible courses of action into the future, to think out steps to realize our aims, to develop skills to carry out our plans, and to carry out those plans through action under our own control. This is self-management. To be self-managing is to be self-determining. This is freedom in the positive sense of the word. To be self-managing, to control our lives, is a basic need that human beings have because this is how we ensure that our actions serve our own aspirations.
The laissez faire ideology, so prominent in American society at present, defines freedom only as absence of formal legal constraint. Workers are alleged to be free because we have the legal freedom to quit a tyrannical corporate master and seek out another. This use of â€œfreeâ€ is sort of Orwellian: â€œServitude is freedom.â€ By this logic, people in Nazi Germany or Stalinâ€™s
In both the capitalist and Communist countries working people are forced to labor to fulfill the plans of others, exploited for the benefit of elites. This denial of our human need for self-management, our subordination to the power and profit-seeking of elites, is oppression. Workersâ€™ liberation requires putting an end to this condition of subordination to elite classes.
Ownership of the means of production by the capitalists is only one of the structures that tramples the self-management of working people. The coordinator classâ€™s relative monopolization of conditions for control of work also subordinates the working class. Thus changing the ownership structure of the economy, from private to public ownership, would not be sufficient to liberate the working class. The power of the coordinator class over the working class would also need to be dissolved. To do this, the working class would need to replace the existing corporate and state hierarchies with economic and political institutions that would embody their collective self-management of production and control over social affairs.
A society with class subordination and other structures of oppression forces people into certain patterns of behavior, shaping their consciousness in certain ways. Managers and professionals who control the design of jobs and the activities of others acquire specific skills, as well as a sense of their entitlement to run things. Facing powerful control structures as individuals, subordinated workers often develop a sense of not having any power to change this, a fatalistic acquiescence. Our potential to design and control our own work, and to attain mastery over the production process, is under-developed by a system that doesn’t call upon us to make the decisions.
If the working class is to liberate itself, it must overcome fatalism and internal divisions (such as along lines of race and gender) and acquire the unity, organizational strength, self-confidence, self-discipline, personal skills, vision, and high levels of active involvement in struggle needed to mount a fundamental challenge to the elites.
Apart from the control structures of the dominating classes, the organizations that workers create themselves also affect their sense of power to change things and the personal strategies they use to navigate their way through life. Thatâ€™s because organization affects the ability of working people to mount collective actions and resistance which can force the corporations and government to respect their aspirations.
How much collective action and solidarity we see around us will affect our beliefs about our power to change things. If a person faces the corporations and the state as a lone individual, they may believe “you’re on your own.” If people standing up for each other begins to become more common, and we see an increase in collective action against those who have power, we will be more likely to start thinking in terms of collective action as a solution to the problems that affect us instead of looking only to individual solutions.
If we are to create a society in which the people can directly control their lives, a society in which workers run the industries where they work, the process of self-management must emerge in self-management of mass organizations of working people. The self-managed mass organizations prefigure self-management of social production by workers and the direct self-governance of society by the mass of the people.
Mass organizations directly controlled by their participants give people a means of collectively self-managing struggles within capitalist society, and help to develop in people a sense of their power to run things. Through a more or less protracted process, the working class can break longstanding habits of a
Arguments for a New Labor Movement
Mass organizations of workers rooted in the struggles in workplaces are central to the potential power of the working class to make changes in society. A union is a mass organization through which workers force the employers to do things the employers would rather not do, or force the employers to avoid doing things they would like to do. Through their solidarity and force of numbers, and their ability to bring work to a halt, workers â€œin unionâ€ with each other can bend the will of the employers, forcing them to do what they would otherwise rather not do.
But the currently dominant type of trade union in the
In what follows Iâ€™m going to argue for a major effort to develop new union organizations outside the top-down hierarchies of the AFL-CIO and CTW unions.
1. A top-down apparatus of paid officials and staff tend to monopolize expertise and levers of decision-making in AFL-CIO and CTW. This disempowers the members and prefigures continued subordination and exploitation of workers.
The relative monopolization of decision-making and expertise in the control of the labor process is a defining trait of the coordinator class, and is a part of the subordination of the working class in the social economy. The relationship of the paid apparatus of the unions to union members is quite analogous, and it is also disempowering for workers. Of course, the institutional techniques that lead to control by the paid apparatus of the union â€” and their degree of control and the level of participation and activism of members â€” vary among unions.
Paid officers and staff a
Robert Fitch uses the label â€œfiefdom syndromeâ€ for the system that makes the membership of the union dependent on, and under the thumb of, the paid machine in the traditional AFL trade This is a kind of political machine where the leader is the patron who controls a
Job trust unions often have little incentive to broaden their membership through organizing. If more members are brought into the union, this may mean that there are merely more workers competing for the same jobs, sitting on the benches in the hiring hall. Because the AFLâ€™s traditional strategy was to exclude other workers from their craft, this often took the form of excluding women or African-Americans, as in the construction trades. Corruption â€” endemic in various parts of the traditional AFL international unions â€” is facilitated by the domination of the paid leaders, the inability of the workers to escape the unionâ€™s monopoly control, and the lack of effective involvement and control by the members(7). (American unions are called â€œinternationalsâ€ because they typically have sections in
In the competition between the AFL and the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, the AFL unions were largely su
To see how an AFL â€œfiefdomâ€ works, itâ€™s worth focusing on a particular example. So letâ€™s look at the United Transportation Union (UTU) at the Los Angeles MTA. The UTU is a garden variety AFL kleptocracy. The two UTU international union presidents prior to the current president are currently serving prison terms for embezzlement of union funds.
The Los Angeles MTA operates a vast transit network throughout Los Angeles County, with 16 bus divisions and four subway and light rail lines. There are about 5,000 bus and train operators in the UTU. The widespread de-industrialization and closing of unionized industrial plants in Los Angeles in the â€˜70s and â€˜80s has left the MTAâ€™s transit oper