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Occupy Theory: Chapter 2


The following is an excerpt from Volume One of Fanfare for the Future, titled Occupy Theory and authored by Michael Albert of the U.S. and Mandisi Majavu or South Africa. Occupy Theory is available as an ebook   

“The illusion that we are separate from one 
another is an optical delusion of our consciousness.”
- Albert Einstein

 

If we believe society may be usefully described as involving four spheres of life, or if we at least pursue that belief to see how far it can take us, then in this chapter we can agree on some additional tools for understanding each of those four spheres taken separately. In the next chapter, we can consider the four spheres as they interact and change over time.

 

General Character of Social Spheres

“A child of five would understand this.
Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
- Groucho Marx

 

One way to rapidly progress is to make some generalizations that apply to all the four spheres of social life – kinship, culture/community, polity, and economy – even while we remember that these four spheres do not really exist by themselves, but always overlap the other three. 

We particularly want to understand institutions that contour people’s lives. And, of course, we particularly care about the reasons why groups of people might seek change to escape limitations that institutions impose on them. 

In the various acts of…

  • …and especially as a result of the requirements of the roles for carrying out those acts, people are typically divided into groups with different access to influence, status, material well being, and overall quality of life. 

    Some groups enjoy many benefits and suffer few discomforts. Other groups enjoy few benefits and suffer many discomforts. 

    Further, it isn’t just that one group does better and another group does worse. It is that groups often contend for benefits. For one group to get significantly more, another group will have to get less. 

    Men gain time, influence, and material advantages relative to women, heterosexuals relative to homosexuals, and such gains and losses also accrue around matters of age and other kinship/sexist hierarchies. 

    Various cultural communities (such as U.S. whites) compared to other cultural groups (such as U.S. Blacks and Latinos) do better due to community/racist as well as ethnic or national or other cultural hierarchies. 

    In the economy owners do better than managers, engineers, and other empowered employees, and both owners and empowered employees do better compared to workers, all in accord with class hierarchies. 

    And finally, those who have legislative, judicial, and/or coercive political power do better relative to those who don’t, this time due to political (sometimes called bureaucratic) hierarchies in elected or imposed governments, and in police and armies and other governmental institutions, depending on the society. 

    Additionally, all these group oppositions are largely zero sum. The better-off groups typically enjoy gains proportionally as the worse-off groups suffer losses. Taken together, this description of multiple contending groups constitutes a complex claim, but its truth is obvious to virtually everyone. 

    Also obvious, though less often made explicit, is that when there is a group above and a group below, while the particular features differ for the different hierarchies, there are also significant similarities in the dominant/subordinate relationship from hierarchy to hierarchy. Mainly, members of groups on top – in each sphere of life – will not typically get up each morning and smugly tell themselves: “We are on top because the system is rigged to our advantage, and we act to keep those who are beneath us down by whatever means we can muster.” Rather, very often, those above will confidently tell themselves, “We are superior and deserve our advantages while those below are inferior and in any case don’t deserve as much.” Those above – whether it is a matter of kinship, race, class, or political power – will also feel that, “Our being rewarded more than others benefits everyone, because we are smarter, more creative, harder working, and more responsible.” 

    They may even tell themselves that those below “wouldn’t even enjoy the benefits we receive were they to have them – at least as much as we enjoy them – because they just don’t have the refined taste and creativity to make good use of such riches. In fact, our underlings would likely be burdened if they had all the wealth we have? What would they do with it – other than waste it.” 

    Those above conclude that for the most part, on average, “society is just.” This set of self-elevating attitudes appears in racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and classism, which in turn elevate dominant cultural community, kinship, political, or economic groups above those subordinated below.

    Reciprocally, those on the bottom won’t always furiously tell themselves, “We are on the bottom unjustly. We suffer because the system is rigged to keep us down and because those arrayed above work hard to keep things as they are, and we damn well ought to change it.” 

    Rather, those on the bottom may instead tell themselves, or at least at some level harbor the doubt that, “We belong down here. We didn’t try hard enough. Or we weren’t able enough. Or we were unlucky. Or our kind just doesn’t have what it takes.” 

    Those below may even sometimes feel that they “do better with those above staying above, because the men/owners/whites/politicians are better at what they do and we get trickle down benefits.” Or they may tell themselves, “We like it down here. We have less responsibility and less hassle.” 

    However, while those formulations are what primarily existed as rationalizations and justifications decades back, and while they still hang on naggingly for quite a few people living on the downside of society’s hierarchies, impressions and polls suggest that they are no longer the predominant view for those on the bottom. Rather, in the past few decades and increasingly as time passes, a new motif contends in oppressed people’s rationales for accepting their plight. 

    Those below have come to realize they are below because the system is rigged. They have come to realize, even if they don’t dwell on it, that their plight is not inevitable, but imposed. However, at the same time, they have also come to believe, very strongly, that “there is no alternative, no better arrangement, or at least no way out.” 

    With this mindset those below report that: “There is no point in fighting. There is no point in trying for anything profoundly different. There is no option beyond working within relations as they exist to get the best of a bad lot for me and mine.” 

    They say, “I can maybe work a little harder, spend a bit more wisely and otherwise improve my plight and the plight of my family a bit. But I can’t improve my situation beyond that, much less change things for everyone.” 

    The mindset is that: “To fight the hierarchy, to fight the system, to fight injustice, is like rolling big rocks up steep inclines, only to be crushed when they finally roll back down. It is like blowing into the wind. It is like complaining about gravity. It is futile.” 

    They even tell those who do resist that they are on a fool’s errand. They urge that: “You best make your way within the rot. You can’t fight city hall. You must operate within its dictates. And the same holds for all society’s hierarchies.” 

    However, since in this book we are not interested in justifying current oppressive relations but instead seek to change them, we will want to chart out useful rebellious counter views, as well as understand the tenacity of the self-defeating views that sometimes bind those who suffer to their subordination. 

    Yes, being on the bottom often does lead one to adopt views that seem to make sense but which wrongly cement one’s lowly position. Many people may place the blame for our plight on ourselves or, in any event, reject thoughts about changing our situation. But that is obviously not a stance we favor and pursue in this book. 

    More positively, being on the bottom sometimes leads people to examine their situation, define alternative arrangements to pursue, seek levers by which to win changes, and pursue further insights to fuel each investigation and practice. And, indeed, this has happened repeatedly throughout history and has led to various oppositional, radical, and sometimes revolutionary perspectives that have dramatically advanced the interests of those below. 

    So we might expect to be able to look at these past rebellious perspectives to find tools we can use ourselves, in our own future. And indeed, we can do just that, quite successfully, and largely without need for fundamental alterations, for at least three of the four spheres.

     

     

     

    Three Spheres: Theory the Easy Way

    “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn 
    how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
    - John Steinbeck

     

    Suppose we start with issues of gender and sexuality. On average, women and homosexuals live at the bottom of sex gender hierarchies and have, over time, elaborated concepts and ideas for understanding the attitudes of people in sexist hierarchies; for understanding the effects of the institutions that create and maintain sexist hierarchies; and, at least to some extent, for understanding alternative institutions that might fruitfully replace existing kinship institutions. 

    Taken together, we can reasonably call all these frameworks that elaborate the interests of women and gays, feminism. They are combinations of concepts, insights, aims and methods that people can bring to the task of altering gender relations, confident that their views highlight what needs highlighting, leave out nothing critically important, point them in useful directions, and arm them to understand and act. As forewarned in the introduction, we could mine the literature and practical history to now produce a lengthy book just recounting and summarizing feminist insights about all manner of important historical events and societal relations that those struggling with changing the kinship sphere have produced, but instead, for now, we will have to settle for presenting only some central insights, learning more as we proceed later. 

    The functions defining the kinship sphere are those of family life – particularly those related to bringing into the world and raising the new generation. They are about maintaining living units and conducting sexual and daily life interactions more broadly. The roles associated with these functions are, of course, incredibly diverse. Some central ones are man and woman – and I will explain in a second why man and woman are roles – mother and father, and for that matter sister and brother, uncle and aunt, and so on – as well as gay, straight, and bisexual, etc. 

    Feminist analysis has explained the features of the hierarchies and the tremendous toll they take on women and gays – and to a degree even on men and heterosexuals – as compared to the better circumstances we all might enjoy in our lives. They have uncovered the differences in circumstance and material well being, the psychological and physical abuse, the different allotments of time and energy that accompany being in different sex gender roles including tracing implications into all features of social life, religion, work, government, education, culture, and of course home life. And to an extent, feminists have also explained, though without full agreement as yet, the origins of the sex/gender hierarchies and have elaborated some ideas about alternative roles and structures that would eliminate those hierarchies to establish instead just relations in households and sexual and familial interactions, and, by extension, throughout society. 

    But why are being a man and being a woman social roles, you might wonder, given that they are biologically determined? 

    Well, it’s because while Samantha may biologically be a woman and Samuel biologically a man, the behaviors and responsibilities that Samantha and Samuel carry – and the habits and preferences they arrive at in any particular society – go way beyond their innate biological differences.  

    Being a man or woman in a society that has a sexist hierarchy is very different than being a man or woman in a society in which men and women are different only by virtue of actual biological imperatives. Biology always imposes some differences in what we can do vis a vis birthing, nursing, etc. But social structures typically impose much broader and more stringent differences regarding how we must act, what we can be, our jobs, behaviors, feelings, status, income, and position.

    Suppose we go a step further and consider being a mother or a father. Again, you might think, those are not roles in an institution – rather being a mother or father is defined by biological dictates in our natures. And, yes, biology is certainly part of being a mother or father. But being a mother in our society typically means having an array of very specific nurturing, caring, cleaning, and organizing responsibilities, among many other implications, all of which are on average quite different from what fathers do, where the differences have literally nothing to do with biology. 

    Likewise, viewed from the other end of this spectrum, being a father in our society typically carries a very different set of responsibilities and expectations than being a mother, often financial and disciplinary, that are more authoritative as well as far less time consuming, and that again have zero to do with biology. 

    Of course, the non biological attributes of being a mother or father, and even how the actual biological aspects are practically undertaken, can change due to institutions changing, as has happened, to a degree, in the last 45 years or so – while the actual biological imperatives are far more fixed. 

    We don’t need to get too much into all this yet. We will look more deeply at sexist roles and their implications in home life and other places as well when we talk about vision and strategy. For now, let’s just assume that much of what feminism has asserted and still asserts can be carried over, pretty much as it currently stands, to become part of our development of a multifocused perspective. We’ll test and act on that assumption as we proceed.

    Next, however, we will consider issues of cultural community. 

    The situation is quite similar to what we found for sex/gender relations. Historically, communities that have suffered the indignities and gross violations of racism and other cultural hierarchies such as those based on nationalism and ethnic and religious bigotry, have sometimes given in to despair and even been resigned to their situations while trying to carve out the best possible circumstances within the dictates of the oppressive limits they confront. Other times, however, subordinated communities have rebelled and developed ways of thinking about their plight – including developing related concepts and commitments about racism and other cultural oppressions – that we can pretty much adopt in full. 

    The heart of this has been understanding that racial, religious, and other cultural hierarchies typically involve communities arrayed in conflict, often with one community dominating and seeing itself as innately or at least historically superior to one or more other communities, and with institutions throughout society elevating members of the dominant community while subordinating members of the subordinate communities. 

    An additional key insight of those rebelling against community hierarchy and seeking community/cultural liberation – and I want to call such a stance intercommunalist – has been that these racial, ethnic, national, and religious hierarchies are actually social. The power and material advantages of one community over another arise from social relations and history, not biology. Indeed, no real biological boundary exists between communities and there is no significant biological basis for cultural community distinctions. On average the genetic difference between two randomly selected individuals in any single cultural community are typically greater than the genetic differences between average representatives of two different communities. Role differences, not biological destiny, deliver unequal circumstances and benefits whose rationalization then fuels derogatory misconceptions of self and others, often including domination and resignation, all backed by power differences which create and sustain cultural hierarchies. 

    As with sex gender relations, we will learn more about all this, even as we borrow and incorporate into our own views – with only very modest refinements – many related insights from past practitioners challenging community hierarchies. 

    Next, to continue this survey, we have issues of polity. Again, critics of existing political relations – and in particular I have in mind the best practitioners of what has often been called anarchism – have developed highly useful insights that we can largely adopt and work with in our own developing perspective. The focus they have often made central has been on political institutions that serve narrow interests and exist separate from and above the population, including ruling over the population. The polity that anarchists reject is not an extension of the population limited by and manifesting the will of the population. The rejected polity, whether dictatorial or parliamentary, is instead an encumbrance on the population, weighing down on it, manifesting the will of a minority.

         The anarchist school of political thought can also be elaborated at far greater length, and much of its wisdom will become clearer as we talk more about vision and strategy. One anarchist insight, for example, is the observation – long asserted but rarely seriously considered – that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This means, basically, that if some people have excessive power they will rationalize it in ways extolling holding power as a virtue, leading to their trying to accrue even more power, and they will then most typically use their power in pursuit of more power. The results become steadily worse the more power is centralized into ever fewer hands. 

         For now though, the main point is that – as was true for our view of feminist and intercommunalist approaches – there are no grave and fundamental problems in the basic ideas of anti authoritarian projects such that we would need to reject or dramatically amend the perspective. Rather in building our own framework, we can mostly incorporate the political insights of these practitioners, meshing them with the best insights of feminist and intercommunalist schools, making modifications mainly – as we will see next chapter – so that each approach respects and incorporates the wisdom of the other two.

     

     

     

    One Sphere Takes More Work

    “Prejudices are what fools use for reason.”
    - Voltaire

     

    The fourth sphere, economics, presents a different problem than the  other three. Economics, it turns out, needs significantly more innovation of past views, even renovating past views, to make useful progress. 

    Typical dissident understanding of the economy is certainly, in large part, informative. It addresses material inputs and outputs and produced services, and the condition of workers and consumers involved in these acts. These perspectives – as they are elaborated in anti capitalist movements and struggles – address production, consumption, and allocation and unearth some key roles regarding all these, including seeking to understand the implications of those roles for contending groups. So far, so good. The path taken is much like for the three other spheres. Identify functions, identify institutions, and examine the implications for contending groups.

    But then something profoundly important goes awry. Pretty much all dissidents examining economics agree that the key to understanding economic prospects and possibilities is understanding contending groups, called classes, and the attitudes, behaviors, and interests largely imposed on classes by their economic roles. This is much like understanding men and women, gays and straights, blacks and whites,  Catholics and Muslims, and the attitudes, behaviors, and interests largely imposed on those contending groups by kinship or cultural roles. But despite this similarity, almost all dissident approaches to economics then make what we consider a devastating error. They rightly identify a critically important aspect of economics that affects its creation of contending groups – which in the economic case are called classes. At the same time, however, they overlook – and even obscure – another comparably important but quite different aspect affecting the creation of contending groups. This imposes a fundamentally flawed picture. The usual approach goes more or less like this. Economies must produce and distribute so that people can then consume. We produce potatoes to consume potatoes. In the type of economy we currently endure, called capitalist, particular ownership relations and the roles they impose generate the working class and the owning class as contending actors with different motives, agendas, and views of each other. 

    The anti capitalist analysis of this contentious relationship is insightful and can, in many respects, be borrowed. As we will see, that analysis uncovers how private ownership of workplaces and production assets leads to the pursuit of profit by owners and the pursuit of better salaries by workers – which, in turn, leads to owners trying to diminish wages, lengthen the work day, and speed up and intensify work, while workers seek to raise wages, shorten work days, and enjoy less frantic and dangerous conditions, among other contrary agendas. All of this, and many similar insights, are indeed important for efforts to change society. After all, the economy being oriented to the pursuit of profit over well being is one of the key reasons why capitalist economies fail to further values we believe in.

    But here is the problem. People are divided into contending classes due to their different roles in the economy giving them opposing interests. One factor causing such differences is different ownership positions – as in some people owning means of production and others just owning their own ability to do work. So far, so good. However, another factor causing people to occupy different classes is not about owning property, but is, instead, about the type of work we do in the economic roles we occupy. Economic class is not solely about who owns what, but also, who does what. 

    Work, like all activity, affects those who do it. In modern capitalist economies – except for the top owners who constitute only one or two percent of the population – we all work. Indeed, we all sell our ability to do work to owners, and we all get wages for the work we do, a relation rightly called by its critics, wage slavery. This commonality is what has caused most anti capitalists over the decades to lump all these people who sell their ability to do work for a wage into a single working class. 

    However, there is another line that divides all those who get wages into not one but two classes. 

    In this view, at the top of all economic actors there are owners, or capitalists. At the bottom there are workers. But in between the lowly laborers and lordly capitalists, there is a third class, which we will call the coordinator class, including all those who do largely empowering work unlike workers at the bottom who do overwhelmingly disempowering, rote, and tedious work. 

    By doing largely empowering work, we mean that this third class – between the two more familiar classes – overwhelmingly does tasks that give them self confidence, social skills, workplace knowledge, habits, and experiences of workplace daily decision making. All of which, taken together, empowers them. In contrast, the more typical workers toiling below the coordinator class, overwhelmingly do rote, tedious, repetitive, and often dangerous tasks which convey only exhaustion, reduced health, personal isolation, habits of obedience, and disempowerment.

    So our new claim is that unlike the situation for sex/gender, race/ethnicity, and power, past efforts at developing a perspective suited to understanding economics from the angle of those at the bottom of society’s class hierarchies – its workers – have been seriously flawed. 

    We can borrow from kin, cultural, and political approaches without having to fundamentally correct them by making only some refinements. Those three approaches accurately identify contending constituencies and accurately sensitize us to all the key oppressive dynamics in their domains. 

    In contrast, the economic approaches that have in the past typically characterized dissent have focussed on two key classes where they should have focussed on three. These familiar economic approaches – including, particularly, marxism – have highlighted some kinds of economic oppression (related to profit seeking), but have largely ignored – or even at times denied – other kinds of economic oppression related to maintaining the division between coordinators above (usually around 20% of all waged employees) and workers  below (typically constituting the other 80% of all waged employees).

    How could this oversight have entered and persisted in past anti capitalist efforts?

    A rightful rejection of economic oppression got sidetracked, one might say, into aggressively examining one set of relations (property relations) but away from equally examining another set of relations (division of labor relations having to do with empowerment).

    This is not a small problem. And it isn’t just that the twenty percent in the coordinator class do much better than workers who reside below while contending with owners who reside above. It is also that a two class view that denies the importance of a third class sabotages capacities to envision a truly classless economy. 

    Focusing on only two classes often causes anti capitalists to arrive at a vision they think aims to benefit workers, but which in fact elevates coordinators above workers. In Fanfare, therefore, we must not only refine and better integrate with the rest of our understanding of past economic insights – as we have to do for past gender/sex, community, and political insights – we must also more fundamentally transform past economic insights. 

    We must add to an understanding of owners and workers, an understanding of coordinators existing between owners and workers. This third group is not merely small capitalists or better off workers. It is not just a fraction of some other class, nor a variant on some other class. Nor is it about property. This is a third class with a different logic that derives from how the corporate division of labor leads to one group monopolizing empowering work while another does only disempowering work. 

    To usefully address economics for social change we must highlight how coordinators defend and enlarge their relative monopoly on empowering work as a natural – and very nearly inexorable – outgrowth of their position in the division of labor and also highlight the great advantages in circumstance and income this position gives coordinators in capitalism relative to workers below. We must also show how at times the coordinators try to escape subordination to owners, including by establishing a whole new economy which is, however, not classless, but instead ruled by the coordinator class, with workers remaining subordinate. 

    Our claim, in other words, is that a two-class focus emphasizing only those who profit as against those who work for wages doesn’t give us a full and accurate picture of our economies. It misdirects us to try to see everything in terms of property and capitalist/worker relations. But coordinator class members – doctors, lawyers, managers, accountants, engineers, scientists, and so on – are not just another kind of capitalist, smaller, or smarter, or whatever. Nor are they just another kind of worker, better off, but still in the same class. They are not a somewhat deprived part of the class above, nor a somewhat advantaged part of the class below, nor are they some kind of a mix of the two. Coordinators occupy a class unto themselves, with very different circumstances from workers below and owners above that can cause them to contend with both. If our concepts hide this reality, then our concepts also cause us to miss crucial insights relevant to social change, as will become clearer as we proceed.  

    But even now we can note that the coordinator class can elaborate its interests into a program of their own, and often have done just that – even winning changed economies that they then rule in place of owners who the coordinator project eliminates by eliminating private ownership of productive property – even while coordinators still administer workers who remain subordinate. 

    This is the meaning of the song lyric, “bring in the new boss, same as the old boss.” In fact, however, the new boss is the same as the old boss only in the sense of still being above while workers are still below. The actual basis of the new boss’s rule, and the behaviors of the new boss, change with the shift from a capitalist to a coordinator ruling class. But from the point of view of eliminating subordination, clearly the result remains undesirable. 

    Regarding the four spheres of society, our aim as we proceed is going to be to understand how to accomplish their relevant functions without generating old or new hierarchies of wealth, power, dignity, status, comfort, etc. 

    For the economy, this will mean we want classlessness. But you can’t get from class divided to classless if you fail to notice a key class that can become a new ruling class. This isn’t just a plausible hypothesis or a clever prediction. It is also verified in experience repeatedly in history. What has been called socialism in the past, claiming to be an economy guided by the interests of and ruled by the collective desires of workers, has in fact typically been an economy that has eliminated the owning class by eliminating the role of owning workplaces, but has retained the corporate division of labor and the coordinator class, with the coordinator class ruling workplaces and the overall economy. 

    Wanting classlessness means we don’t want this new boss in place of the old boss. We must, therefore, attend to the coordinator class in our thoughts about what exists, about what we want, and about how we get to our goals. We have to examine how the coordinator class relates to owners above and to workers below in our present economies. We have to examine how new economic relations will eliminate the monopoly on empowering work that produces the coordinator class in our future economy. And we have to examine how our strategies have to address class to successfully eliminate the division of labor-related elements of class rule, as well as the ownership-related elements of class rule. Our changed theory will, in coming volumes, affect our new vision and strategy.

     

     

    Conclusion

    “Most everybody I see knows the truth 
    but they just don’t know that they know it.”
    - Woody Guthrie

     

    In this chapter we have discerned that popular dissenting conceptions regarding polity, culture, and kinship are fundamentally sound and can be incorporated into our conceptual tool box for social change with only minor refinements, to be elaborated next chapter. 

    On the other hand, we have also claimed a need to renovate old dissident economic conceptions because they obscure the critically important role of the coordinator class – and thus also of the corporate division of labor. 

    Changing society requires an accessible, sufficiently complete, but not excessively detailed set of accurate views about what exists, what we want, and methods can take us from the former to the latter.

    With two chapters complete we have identified four spheres and two contexts and the centrality of certain social constituencies and institutions. We have seen that we can borrow from past insights to enhance our understanding of three of the four spheres and that we can borrow some but also must generate some new insights, for understanding the fourth sphere. 

    We must now note, however, that we also know that sexism isn’t just something that exists in the home. Nor does classism exist only in workplaces or market exchange. Nor does racism or other community dynamics occur only in cultural institutions. Nor does political power exist only in government offices and relations. 

    To move toward more detailed analyses and also, in time, on to vision – even as we leave many gaps for later attention – we must now at least look at how the four spheres intersect and change over time, each affecting and being affected by the others, changing and being changed, which are the topics we address next chapter.  

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