While attention to class has ebbed and flowed among social movements for generations, class rule was always present and the recent economic crisis has forced it back into the spotlight. But what is class rule and why is it important?
People define class in diverse ways, but for me classes are groups of people that share an economic position giving them broadly similar structural economic interests, needs, and self-conceptions.
Of course gender, race, religion, and many other largely extra economic factors impact people, including affecting class relations and views, but if we simplify and look only within the economy, then class defines a person’s position in relation to productive property, the division of labor, and economic decision-making and distribution and influences much else as well, of course.
Capitalism has three centrally important economic classes. First, capitalists own some of the means of production and have an interest in maximizing profits which in turn determine their income, privilege, and bargaining power in relation to other classes as well as compared to other capitalists.
A capitalist can expand profits by many actions including, for example, lowering wages, reducing costs of material inputs or other costs for example by moving to locations where human rights, environmental, or labor standards are relaxed, paying less tax, increasing the duration of work without paying more for it, raising prices for goods sold, increasing market share, and so on.
Beneath capitalists we find those I call the coordinator class whose work is defined largely by conceptual and otherwise empowering tasks. Coordinator class members do work that confers to them considerable knowledge of economic functions, skills, confidence, and access to daily decision-making power.
Though ultimately subordinate to owners in practice coordinators largely define their own daily conditions of work and often the conditions of workers below as well. Coordinator class members have great bargaining power due to their relative monopoly on critical information, social skills, and knowledge bearing on production. They use their power to win material rewards far higher than their effort or sacrifice deserve.
Coordinator class members include doctors, lawyers, elite politicians or university professors, engineers, architects, managers, and so on. The coordinator class typically seeks gains by exercising rule over the working class below while also seeking autonomy from capitalists above. Coordinator class members want higher wages, better working conditions, more time off, and more autonomy, and they use their considerable bargaining power stemming from their special position in the production process to win these benefits.
The remaining economic actors are the working class. Workers own no (or nearly no) productive assets and must sell their labor to those who own or control means of production. More, workers are also left doing rote and repetitive or otherwise disempowering labor. Their position on the class map is thus below both the coordinator and capitalist classes.
Workers’ interests are to improve their working conditions, gain greater material rewards, and win more control over the productive process including the length of the work day, work week, vacation allotments, and even when and where they work, how they live and what they consume. But workers only viable means to attain these ends are to struggle for them via their unions or other organizations ultimately using the threat to collectively withhold labor.
Economic position and derivative self-perception and collective interests are the main features defining classes as a group.
The alternative to explicitly pursuing class interests is typically for members of a class to act alone without common class objectives in mind, or even with muddled objectives imposed from above and contrary to their own collective interests.
Typically, the capitalist and coordinator class know their interests are opposed to the interests of workers. Capitalists, for example, know that they need to retain bargaining power over those they employ, and likewise, so do members of the coordinator class.
Great efforts are made by those above workers to make workers believe that they are each individually responsible for their personal condition due to their own inadequacies, and that looking after themselves as individuals, through competition with other workers and by obeying the boss, is the best and even the only way to advance their personal cause.
It has been argued that through class struggle workers can develop the awareness, skills, and capacity needed to not only become cognizant of and fight for their common interests, but to self-manage production and consumption. Complicating matters is the fact that, even though workers interests are intensely contrary to those of their employers, understanding this does not alone guarantee that workers will seek to collectively improve their conditions.
Without hope that long-run gains are possible and short-run improved conditions attainable, awareness of exploitation and lack of decision-making control rarely alone motivate activism from the working class.
A typical worker, being quite sensible, needs to realize not only that there is injustice, but also to believe that there is a way out. For sustained activism both awareness of collective power to win short-term gains and hope that economies can become classless are needed.
When workers seek self-management and to escape from class rule they become revolutionary.
Obstacles to this include that workers may know they are exploited and oppressed yet doubt that there is any way to win collective freedom or even that such a condition is possible.
Even while winning short-term demands, if there is an overall perception that capitalism is the only economic option, workers will take for granted that there is no alternative to class rule. If under these circumstances complete cynicism doesn’t set in, there will certainly be no inclination to confront class hierarchy per se.
For this reason, knowing what we want is important, which in turn means having a broad visionary perspective able to inform commitment and inspire hope, but then also substantive positive desires to give it weight and implications. For example, knowing we would love to have autonomy and self-management is a very broad visionary desire. Knowing ownership of productive assets and hierarchical divisions of labor and allocation are incompatible with those aims is a visionary perspective.
But knowing what we can seek that is consistent with those aims is "substantive positive desires" and that is what ultimately overcomes cynicism and guides actions.
Put bluntly, there is a risk in our movements today of activists themselves pushing victory for a new world further off into the future than it needs to be due to being cynical about, or even just not positive about, desired future aims.
In part this is because not enough people in our movements share a common conception neither of class nor of what classlessness may look like.
One possible solution to this problem is to work towards developing an agreed upon understanding of these things in a way that can be owned and modified by mass movements. Yet, this process is only just beginning.
Even in antiauthoritarian and libertarian socialist circles we largely lack agreement about crucial concepts important to our organizing such as class. For example, beyond broad agreement that class is important, it is actually shocking that we remain silent on positive conceptions of how divisions of labor in the workplace or remuneration for work should be reorganized to eliminate class division.
Along with property relations and decision-making power this is a fundamental issue determining class and overlooking this is a fatal error because, if a positive orientation towards how these features of capitalist or "socialist" economies are not thought about by us, then we leave addressing them to the rationale of the capitalist and managerial classes. This means that we should get over whatever resistance we have to stating what we want and examine the reasons why we have such resistance. Perhaps it is a belief that proposing vision is authoritarian, or that more important matters like global warming or war should get priority, or something else. Whatever the reason, we should exchange thoughts on the matter, not least because it is too important to not talk about. To ignore it is to forfeit classlessness to class rule.
One of the most fundamental changes that could be made to any workplace to ensure workers control and self-management would be to reorganize ownership relations so that either no one or everyone owns the means of production — with all having decision-making say proportional to how they are affected.
Also crucial for realizing classlessness would be to reorganize the division of labor so that everyone has an equal share of both empowering and disempowering work in the workplace. This would render class rule in the workplace obsolete while at the same time aid self-management and solidarity instead.
All in the workplace would benefit from having the decision-making skills, capacities, and confidence to participate in decision-making themselves and together. Because the kind of work we do helps shape our capacity for participation, the positive effects derived from self-management in the workplace division of labor will be felt in society more broadly as well.
This new division of labor where work is reorganized to balance empowerment effects is called "balanced job complexes" and is a main condition for eliminating class rule. Balanced job complexes are one of the building blocks of a classless and participatory economy.
Finally, we know that reward for ownership of productive assets acquired through luck, inheritance, brute force, theft, and even (very very rarely) hard work — is unfair. The old adage that "property is theft" rings true when, just because someone owns productive property, they get more of the social product than those who don’t own any.
However, attaining classlessness also requires rejecting compensation for the "fruits of our own labor." This should be rejected too because differences in the productive output of our labor is almost the same as differences in output based on productive property. They are both based on luck or inheritance.
For example, if there are two people who each get paid for the number of apples they can pick in a single hour, it is luck of genetic inheritance that determines that one has better stamina, longer arms, or is taller than the other. Remuneration for the value of the output of one’s labor is as unjust as reward for productive property because it too rewards luck both genetic and in happening to be producing something more valued by the public, or working with better tools, and so on.
Of all the factors that impact the level of our contribution to the social product the only ones that we have any control over and that are therefore morally consistent with classless objectives are how long we work, the onerousness of conditions under which we work, and the intensity with which we work, and this includes any training we undergo to improve our productivity.
All this combined could be spelled out as remuneration for effort and sacrifice and this is remuneration that is both morally sound in itself, consistent with classlessness, and consistent with providing appropriate incentives to actors.
Of course, in addition, there will obviously be cases where age and ill health inhibit people from working. Therefore, in a classless society the norm of remuneration that makes most sense is to receive income for the onerousness, duration, and intensity of socially valued labor that we do, when we can work, and to receive an average share of income allotted for need, just for our humanity, when we cannot work.
These positive suggestions for balanced job complexes and remuneration for effort and sacrifice tempered by need are part of an overall proposal for a classless and self-managing economic system called participatory economics and, in addition to the institutions proposed above, this system includes self-managed producer and consumer councils and decentralized participatory planning to replace markets or central planning.
The point, for this essay, is to assess what economic institutions produce class division and class rule, and to then opt for new institutions which instead produce classlessness.