Analysts and pundits alike all have common understanding of the following words for explaining and remedying the current state of the U.S. economy: "recession," "inflation," "housing crisis," "economic stimulus package," "rate cuts," and "injections." However it doesn’t take an economist, a Wall Street banker, nor a college graduate to understand these could also be euphemisms for summarizing what has been happening: Class War in the opening of the 21st Century. Except the war is not yet a war between classes, it is a war waged by elites on the rest of us. And the war is not new.
Many already know of the widening wealth gap in the U.S.; 2005 saw the largest growth in share of national income for the top 1 percent of Americans since 1928. During 2005 "the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans." Corresponding with these figures the top 10 percent reached a level of income share not seen since before the Great Depression. (US Income Gap Is Widening Significantly, Data Shows, NYT, March 29, 2007). With that in mind, it seems less a coincidence to hear that the current crisis is the "most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, and we’ve only begun to see how bad it is." (Robert Kuttner, Democracy Now, Jan. 23, 2008) We are experiencing an upward redistribution of wealth unprecedented in the last 100 years while at the same time facing an economic disaster. It would take a Wall Street banker to not see how these dots connect.
"This is not a narrow working class interest. We’re losing, essentially, a century of industrial and economic progress. Even as we speak. And that is a good way to form a class alliance."
— Stanly Aronowitz (Class Dismissed, MEF).
Aronowitz is right. But alliance for what? Our Class is defined by material and social groupings with others who have the same interests, needs, and self-conceptions within the economic sphere of society. Strategizing against the war being waged on us by elites should be for improved working and living conditions—yes. But ultimately, the goal that usually escapes discussion is Classlessness.
Outside the Left, class division—along with the defining features of private ownership of productive property, wage labor, and market allocation that comprise the capitalist system—is assumed as natural law or of divine creation. Within the Left, where we are supposed to know better, the situation is more disparaging. Among Left movements of this century class analysis has either been lost, left behind, mystified, made theoretically irrelevant or not far reaching enough, and in some cases, is even argued against as a means to understand society. There are many reasons for these various treatments of class, but perhaps worst of all is to justify our own power and privilege in Left movements and institutions. For this and many reasons, class remains on the sidelines and the possibility of attaining a Classless Society is considered naive pursuit for Utopian day dreamers.
But great strides in historical change for the better are not unprecedented. In 2008, of two leading presidential candidates in the U.S. one is a woman, and another African American. Ending Jim Crow racism was real. Winning universal suffrage was real. However, the people who made that history possible had to struggle against the belief that those oppressive social and material relations were either the product of divine inheritance or historical outcome. Shedding light on the possibility of attaining a classless and participatory society, and that this is no different than ending elite power and privilege based on race or gender, is key for demythologizing its needed realization.
Rather than falling from the sky, or being "hard wired" into history, predominant social relations in any society are the outcome of the defining (human made) institutions of that society. Hierarchy reproducing itself in class can only do so, most of the time, by seeking people who fit the mold of consciousness, social relations, skills, capacities, and personality traits required for reproducing status quo class relations. Reproduction of class within capitalism, from the perspective of those at the top, requires the self-aggrandizing fallacy, that they somehow deserve their ownership of productive assets, high salaries and wages, and managerial authority. The fallacy "rationalizes" how they worked hard, or simply come from better "stock," and that their wealth, power, and privilege are their just desserts.
Most people stay in the class they are born into and their economic fates are pre-determined. In The State of Working America 2006/2007 (Economic Policy Institute, 2007), while looking at intergenerational class mobility, its authors ask "To what extent are children’s economic fates tied to their parent’s income or wealth? Do most families end up about where they started on the income scale?" and "Is the United States’ less-regulated economy characterized by greater economic mobility?" The authors’ research finds that income, wealth, and opportunity are "significantly" correlated across generations. A daughter of a low-income mother has only a small chance of achieving very high earnings in her adulthood. "Almost two-thirds of children of low wealth parents (those in the bottom 20 percent of wealth scale) will themselves have wealth levels that place them in the bottom 40 percent of the scale." Their research also shows that the U.S. has become "considerably" less mobile over time, and has even less class mobility than other advanced economies.
Just for a moment, let’s give the elite fallacy benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume their economic status is not really based on bargaining power rooted in reproduction of their class via generational or familial association, inheritance, luck, brute force, $150,000 diplomas, cronyism, that they are better people, or some other ticket to ride. Let’s assume instead that intrinsic competence was the driving force landing them their elite class status. In Volume 3 of his Political and Social Writings (Minnesota, 1993, original 1974) Cornelius Castoriadis asks "Why should this bit of competence be worth for its possessors four times as much more income as that granted to another, and not twice or twelve-fold? What sense is there in saying that the competency of a good surgeon is worth exactly as much as—or more, or less, than—that of a good engineer? And why is it not worth exactly as much as that of a good train engineer or good teacher?" Or, more directly, why not ask "Why is a surgeon not remunerated less than a garbage collector?"
Castoriadis saw that "competence," "merit," "intelligence," or anything inherited from the genetic lottery was not deserving of more income (even if society paid for the education to nurture its development), "There are certainly individuals who are born more gifted as regards certain activities, or who become so. These differences are in general small, and the development of such differences especially depends on one’s family, social, and educational setting. But in any case, to the extent that someone has a ‘gift,’ the exercise of this ‘gift’ is in itself a source of pleasure when it is not hindered. And as for the rare individuals who are exceptionally gifted, what really matters is not monetary ‘reward’ but creating what they are irresistibly driven to create. If Einstein had been interested in money, he would not have become Einstein—and it is likely that he would have made a rather mediocre boss or financier." But more, there is a social reward for the surgeon who saves a life or the scientist who makes a discovery that is beyond the realm of material value—saving a life or making a discovery, because of its social value, should be reward enough, and material compensation should only be given for the amount of effort put into the work.
A Class Society has remuneration norms based on fallacies rationalizing that society’s class hierarchy. A Classless Society’s remuneration scheme rewards people for the effort or personal sacrifices one makes in their work. Rather than being paid for contribution because of differences in talent, training, job assignment, luck, genetic endowment, better tools or work mates, payment for effort is remuneration for personal sacrifice for the sake of the social good—or what would be socially valuable work. Remuneration for effort and sacrifice corrects what economist Robin Hahnel calls the "doctor-garbage collector problem" (The ABC’s of Political Economy, Pluto, 2002). That is, work is rewarded for effort because someone may work longer hours, have less pleasant work, more intense work, dangerous work, or unhealthy work. The work may even require training that is not gratifying (or as gratifying as others experience), or less pleasant than the time others spend working who train less. This kind of remuneration is also tempered by payment according to need in cases of ill health, age, or some other reason which inhibits us from working. Payment for effort and sacrifice tempered by need will be the remuneration norm of a participatory and classless society.
Realizing a classless society should be as fundamentally important as attaining a society free from racism, sexism, and authoritarianism. Yet abolishing wage labor, markets, and corporate hierarchies, along with racism and sexism, remains our unfinished project:
"Slavery may change its form or its name—its essence remains the same. Its essence may be expressed in these words: to be slave is to be forced to work for someone else, just as the master is to live on someone else’s work. In antiquity…slaves were, in all honesty, called slaves. In the Middle Ages, they took the name of serfs; nowadays they are called wage earners."
— Bakunin, Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism
No doubt others have expressed this idea eloquently as well. An example taken from Bakunin’s contemporary; the capturing words of the first paragraph from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 on Estranged Labour:
"We have started out from the premises of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property; the separation of labour, capital, and land, and likewise of wages, profit, and capital; the division of labour; competition; the conception of exchange value, etc. From political economy itself, using its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity, and moreover the most wretched commodity of all; that the misery of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and volume of his production; that the necessary consequence of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands and hence the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that, finally, the distinction between capitalist and landlord, between agricultural worker and industrial worker, disappears and the whole of society must split into the two classes of property owners and propertyless workers."
A scathing observation of the capitalist system, but, this two-class analysis doesn’t go far enough. This is where Bakunin’s brilliance shines through. Bakunin saw a third class between "the two classes of property owners and propertyless workers" and he predicted the "Red Bureaucracy" which rose within the Russian Revolution, which also came to plague the predominant examples of "Actually Existing Socialism" in the 20th Century. Bakunin specifically called into question the conceptual oxymoron of "dictatorship of the proletariat," while also exposing the false higher value of conceptual labor over manual labor underlying the self-aggrandizing beliefs of the coordinator class:
"Do not the managers superior training and greater responsibilities entitle him to more pay and privileges than manual workers? Is not administrative work just as necessary to production as in manual labor—if not more so? Of course, production would be badly crippled, if not altogether suspended, without efficient and intelligent management. But from the stand point of elementary justice and even efficiency, the management of production need not be exclusively monopolized by one or several individuals. And the managers are not at all entitled to more pay…The monopoly of administration, far from promoting the efficiency of production, on the contrary only enhances the power and privileges of the owners and their managers."
— Michael Bakunin, Philosophical Considerations, 1871
Classical Marxists and Anarchist class analysis has much to offer social movements of today. But debates about class continued well into the 20th Century, with the 60s and 70s offering many new insights. One innovation, mostly overlooked at the time and since, was captured in Between Labor and Capital (ed. Walker, SEP, 1979), a book organized around the lead essay "The Professional-Managerial Class" by Barbara and John Ehrenreich. The Professional-Managerial Class (PMC), as the Ehrenreichs saw it, was a third class between capitalists and workers with its own relations and interests. The PMC approach differed from popular notions of the "middle class," in that it saw this third class as being structurally as important as capitalists and workers. The PMC as the Ehrenreichs described it, includes doctors, managers, "cultural workers," teachers, and others who do largely conceptual and empowering work. The PMC thus differs from capitalists who own and control society’s productive assets, as well as from workers who do mostly manual labor on assembly lines, agricultural work, sales, busing tables, etc. The relations and antagonisms between these three classes persist and, according to the Ehrenreichs, cause us to need to consider "the historical alternative of a society in which mental and manual work are re-united to create whole people." What is consequential, but rarely if ever stated, is that, this insight provides a framework for envisioning how work can be re-organized for a classless society where the division of labor is balanced for both empowerment and desirability.
Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel made their own contribution to the same book, "A Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map," where they first outlined their proposal for a three-class analysis introducing what they call the "Coordinator Class," thereby laying the groundwork for what would become their vision of a classless and participatory economic system. Paraphrasing Albert and Hahnel’s essay, the Coordinator Class, like the PMC, is positioned above workers who do rote and un-empowering tasks, who want higher wages, better working conditions, more control over their work, etc., and below capitalists who own the means of production and want to lower wages while extracting more labor and progressively weaken the bargaining power of workers in order to gain more profit.
Albert and Hanel presented a more holistic view through which to see class and history, offering an alternative to the standard two-class analysis. The orthodox two-class analysis is concerned mostly with class struggle as the driving force shaping society and history. This two-class analysis not only abstracts away core concerns of divers racial and ethnic groups, gender and sexuality, as well as power and political considerations, but also, ironically, overlooks strategic actors within its own realm of economics: the Coordinator Class. On the one hand, coordinators have authority and power over workers. They do mostly empowering and conceptual work, and so benefit from their elite position. On the other hand, workers below them do mostly rote and executionary work. This matters, not only in the unjust distribution of desirable work, but also in so far as the kinds of work we do help shape and inform our skills and capacities for decision-making and participation both in our work places as well as in the institutions of society more broadly. Again, the thrust of this recognition pushes towards seeking classlessness, not only regarding ownership relations, but also relations of power and empowerment. This in turn bears upon how social movements perceive their own organizational structures today as well as regarding what we seek to win.
Challenging the class war being waged by elites is better informed by holding a three-class analysis highlighting, not only the gap between rich and poor, but relations between workers, coordinators, and capitalists. In seeking class alliances we can strategize to see which coordinators workers can ally themselves with, we can see which coordinators will side with the capitalist against workers, and we can adjust our strategies today accordingly for a new approach which embodies our hopes for classlessness tomorrow.
Chris Spannos is staff with Z. He is editor of the book Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21 Century (AK Press, May 2008).