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Class or Multitude


I am going to be in New York City this coming weekend for the Left Forum. One of the two panels I am on is about class or multitude. While I will tailor my words for the setting, once I get there, these are the thoughts I had on the topic by way of preparing.

Class or Multitude

The title of our panel is “Class or Multitude.” I think we need class concepts and while it isn’t our topic, I also think we need concepts highlighting race, gender, and power. I don’t see the point, however, of the concept multitude.

Class concepts point us to the structural features of economies that ensure that some people collectively dominate others.

Class concepts focus on the difference between owning factories and selling one’s ability to do work. This difference produces capitalists versus everyone else. The source of this difference has to be eliminated if we are to transcend capitalism. I think we all agree on that.

Additionally, however, good class concepts should in my view also focus on a second critical economic difference.

Some people do work that conveys knowledge, confidence, and control over daily life. Their work is empowering. They give orders. They define what is done, by whom, in what manner, at what pace.

Other people do work that is overwhelmingly rote, obedient, and dis-empowering. They follow orders. They do not set schedules or agendas. Their knowledge dissipates. Their confidence erodes.

I think this reveals a class difference. On the one side we have what we all call workers – which includes assemblers, buss driver, short order cooks, miners, maids, nurses, and waitresses, the daily implementers of economic dictates.

On the other side, we have what I call coordinators – which includes high level lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants, architects, and managers, the daily designers and administrators of the economy and its protocols.

Coordinators benefit at the expense of workers. Coordinators can even rule workers.

Institutions that create and preserve this coordinator/worker class hierarchy include corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for output or for power, hierarchical decision making, and markets or central planning for allocation.

Sadly, these are the component institutions of what has in the past been called socialism, but which I think we should instead call coordinatorism.

With this perspective, we need class concepts to highlight the three class structure of modern economies and to guide efforts to eliminate both ownership and organizational bases for class division.

Because economics isn’t everything and because people become revolutionary from many starting places and by way of many different agendas, we also need gender concepts, race concepts, and power concepts.

So what about the concept multitude? I am not sure I get it, honestly.

Being one word, it presumably labels essentially one thing. What?

Perhaps multitude refers to everyone who could conceivably become a revolutionary in revolutionary times. But since that could be anyone, population would do as a label for that as well. I doubt that is the intended meaning of multitude though I have heard people will use the term that way.

Perhaps multitude refers instead to everyone who is a good prospect to become revolutionary in revolutionary times. But then the word multitude just replaces the two word label, likely revolutionary, and that doesn’t seem very innovative or essential either. I doubt that is the intended meaning too, though again, I have heard people will use the term that way.

Perhaps multitude means, instead, those who by virtue of their economic position are good prospects to become revolutionary in revolutionary times. Taken in that sense, the concept multitude would replace the old concept proletariat, or even working class. This, I think, is perhaps the intended usage, but also the worst usage.

First, if used this way I think there is a high likelihood focusing on multitude would crowd out giving priority attention to kinship, race, and power as being comparably important as economics in people’s conditions and consciousnesses, and in igniting or thwarting revolutionary inclinations.

We certainly need to highlight that economies affect and are affected by culture, gender, and power. But if our method for incorporating that insight implies not also using central concepts rooted in those other domains, not to mention more detailed economic concepts of class, it will narrow rather than broaden our focus.

This trend would mirror the impact of the old use of the term proletariat as revolutionary agent. Despite multitude being defined more broadly and incorporating additional types of work and economic activity in its logic, like the word proletariat, the word multitude – meaning revolutionary agent and conceived on economic foundations – would cause people to think that the only way to become revolutionary was by way of economic concerns and attitudes, which was something I thought we transcended thirty years ago.

But second, and I think even more damning, elevating the label multitude pushes us back toward a bi-polar view of economic change. There are potential bad guys – maybe we call them capitalists, or emperors, or whatever, and there are potential good guys, the multitude. This is quite like when it was capitalists and workers, and no other pole.

The trouble with this two constituency approach to agents of economic change is that it papers over the existence of the coordinator class and makes it seem like beyond the bad economics we now suffer there can only follow either more of the same or, instead, good economics.

Ironically, given its claims to be a highly innovative approach, trumpeting multitude reminds me of the old and the least flexible variants of Marxism Leninism. There is capitalism, or there is socialism, and there is nothing else. In truth, however, there is not only one post capitalist economy.

One possible post capitalist economy, which was heretofore called socialism, has had institutions that elevate what I earlier called the coordinator class. I like to call this coordinatorism. I find it abhorrent.

A second post capitalist economy would have institutions, instead, that eliminate class division. I think this would be participatory economics, but the jury is still out on that. Classlessness is what I seek.

For me, the problem with the concept multitude is that whatever the intentions behind its use might be, I don’t see how it can become other than a step back toward both an economism that crowds out priority attention for race, gender, and power, and also toward advancing coordinatorism due to having drawn attention away from the nature of the coordinator/worker division.

I know these claims fly in the face of the stated motives of those who use the label multitude. But so too did charges of economism and of favoring an economy that elevated a new ruling class fly in the face of the stated motives of those who in the past advocated Leninist approaches to social change.

Yes, advocates of multitude urge its use to broaden economics to account for other dimensions of life. They want to address all forms of domination. But, despite those admirable desires, it is far more probable that shoveling all dimensions of life under a single logic born of economic modes of thought will underplay extra-economic variables and overplay economic ones.

Second, trying to hammer the varieties of economic possibility into a bi-polar framework that highlights bad economy that we have as opposed to good economy that a multitude can win, ignores that anti-capitalists can seek a future that is classless or can seek a future that has coordinators dominating workers.

Highlighting multitude obscures or even denies the coordinator/worker just as Marxist Leninist concepts obscured and denied that central element in the past.

And that, I think, is a devastating debit of elevating the concept multitude.

In sum, I think we should use the concepts capitalist, coordinator, and worker for understanding the key dynamics of current economies and also of the two main kinds of post capitalist economy, coordinatorism and classlessness.

I think we should use concepts like man, woman, mother, father, black, white, religion, nationality, and others for understanding the key dynamics of current families, cultures, and political structures, and their future improvements as well.

It seems to me that instead of that approach, trying to shoehorn diverse social or even just economic reality into a single constituency tied concept like multitude is wildly backward, not forward, in its implications.

Finally, one last point.

To make a worthy revolution is going to require at least a third of the population being powerful and informed advocates and designers of a better future. That’s a hundred million people, or more.

If the intellectual tools essential for comprehending and designing a better future, and for getting there, are obscure much less abstruse, wide use of them will be impossible.

Instructive theory and inspiring vision need to be in plain language or they aren’t good theory and vision because they won’t be used by those who need to use it.

Talking about democracy, participation, or self management in a language no one who isn’t highly privileged can possibly have any familiarity with is not conducive to democracy, participation, or self management. Luckily, I don’t think there is any need for such language.

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