[The following article is a transcription, with very minor adjustments, of the 89th episode of the podcast RevolutionZ.]
Three years ago I was interviewed for a British outlet and the first, opening question, went like this: ”Since Occupy, said the interviewer, it has become fashionable for progressives to talk about the 1% vs the 99%. This two class analysis, however, has a much longer history. For example, continued the interviewer, Marxists typically highlight two classes – the capitalist class and the working class – and like Occupy focus people’s attention on the problem with an economic system that runs primarily in the interests of an economic elite – whether it be called the capitalists or the 1%. We have seen this kind of analysis, the interviewer continued, during the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US and here in the UK with Momentum – which is the organisation behind Jeremy Corbyn. I want to ask you about this analysis in light of the victory of Donald Trump in your country and Brexit in mine. But before doing that, I was wondering if you could comment on the efficacy of this analysis?
So, asked the above, how would you have answered? Here is what I think of the issue, which is, to my mind, of paramount contemporary importance.
What the two class analysis explicitly says is, up to a point, correct and profoundly important, though sometimes rendered a bit obscure by rhetoric. What the analysis leaves out, however, is also profoundly important and severely undercuts the value of the positive insights.
The correct part is that by virtue of owning the tools and resources that society uses to sustain itself, “capitalists” dominate much of social, political, cultural, and of course economic life. That is, a tiny group of owners profit off others’ efforts. By controlling major centers of power and influence and having vast wealth with which to buy whatever they want, these capitalist owners overwhelmingly influence how everyone lives. To instead have an equitable, classless economy therefore requires eliminating monopolization of productive property into few hands. Equitable classlessness requires eliminating private ownership of productive assets. More, this is not just true words, or clever slogans. It is demonstrable, in fact by this time it is virtually self evident fact. Individuals owning resources, factories, and other means of production means those individuals can hire and fire workers at will. Those individuals can amass great fortunes for themselves from labor done by others, and then, with their great wealth, they can buy and sell whatever they desire, including politicians. Of course, realizing this much about class can inform a great deal more, but even just the main theme noted here is more than enough to evidence the critical importance of the two class view.
What the two class view leaves out, however, is that capitalists are not the only class that has major relative advantages. Below capitalists, but still above what I call the working class, resides what I call the coordinator class, and many call the professional managerial class. This group between labor and capital doesn’t benefit from monopolizing means of production. This group instead benefits from monopolizing empowering roles in the economy. That is, this group does work that conveys to them skills, knowledge, confidence, social connections, and access to levers of decision making power all of which are essential to deciding economic outcomes.
Workers, below the empowered group, in contrast do work that diminishes their skills, delimits their knowledge, drains their confidence, sunders their social connections, and isolates them from levers of decision making power, all of which leaves then unequipped and also disinclined to pursue decision making.
The coordinator class, above – albeit hired and fired by owners – have vastly more influence, greater bargaining power, and thus higher incomes, better conditions, and more social say than workers below.
Within capitalist economies, in other words, coordinators are a class between labor and capital, which makes them, as well, a class that can rule when capitalism is replaced by a predominantly two class alternative that removes private ownership, as has been the case with what has been called centrally planned and market socialism – which systems should be called, instead, I think, centrally planned and market coordinatorism.
To attain an equitable, classless economy therefore requires not only eliminating capitalists owning means of production but also coordinators monopolizing empowering work.
Now hearing that response, you, like the British interviewer, might well reply as he did, that “I know that this is something that you (and your old friend and collaborator, Robin Hahnel) have been talking about since the 1970’s and yet little on the Left seems to have changed. Could you speculate on why that is? What might be the reasons for resisting the kind of analysis that you have presented? Who might stand to gain by ignoring this analysis?
And if you were asked that, how might you answer? My answer is, Well, sometimes a new viewpoint takes a long time to garner substantial support because it is seriously complicated or even though it is reasonably accessible it is quite far from familiar thoughts. Possible, but is that really the answer in this case?
Consider the claim that if 20% of society monopolizes all the empowering tasks in the economy than that 20% will, by virtue of their monopoly, accrue more confidence and influence than those below, accrue more power than those below, accrue more wealth than those below, and, based on that wealth and power, enjoy considerable daily direct control over economic and social life, especially of those below.
Put more specifically, consider the claim that doctors, lawyers, engineers, high level managers, and so on, due to their position in the economy doing empowering work will have far greater income and influence over social life than assemblers, short order cooks, and delivery folks, due to their position doing only disempowering work.
Can anyone sensibly contest that? You might say it is a good thing, or you might say it is a bad thing, but you can’t sensibly say it isn’t true.
Consider as well the claim that if capitalists are removed by eliminating private ownership of the means of production but we retain the old corporate division of labor and other structures that hand all the empowering tasks to 20% and leave the other 80% with only disempowering, repetitious, and obedient tasks – then the former class will dominate the latter class. It will dictate to rote workers from above. Again, not only is this self evident as a hypothesis, in fact, almost a truism, but it has been born out, in practice, over and over.
So, I suspect like you in asking the question, I believe neither claim is particularly complex and that both claims should be clearly evident from even a perfunctory but open minded look at history and current relations. I also believe that while the two claims are incredibly far from the common sense assumptions of members of the empowered coordinator class, they are potentially obvious, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes only when directly raised, to most members of the disempowered working class.
If all that is correct, then to answer the question, it follows that it probably isn’t only conceptual difficulty that prevents this kind of analysis from spreading. But what other factor may be at play? We all have inclinations and biases stemming from our beliefs and habits, not to mention from our outright material interests. These biases and assumptions coming from the behaviors and beliefs that our circumstances impose on us impact how we come at issues and problems.
As but one example, if you are white in a grossly racist society, then even if you are sincerely intellectually against racism, nonetheless, the way you have been brought up, the circumstances you have experienced, and very probably the messages you daily receive tend to limit and skew your understanding. For example, you may intellectually and even morally and emotionally reject racism per se, and yet, at some level, nonetheless you likely accept certain of its rationalizations and habits.
It is also true that if you are black in such a society, again, the horrible structures around you will likely have impacted your beliefs and habits, quite adversely. The effects of racism on the dominant group, but also on the subordinate group, are real and serious and only dissipate with real effort and especially due to countervailing experiences.
The same holds for gender issues, of course, and about race and also about gender, for example, every progressive knows all this quite well, and usually quite directly.
Suppose we translate these understandings – which few do – to the realm of class. Now consider that while there is considerable progressive attention to the existence of owners and workers, there is almost no attention to the specific existence and role of a coordinator class, much less is there explicit understanding of the social – not biological – roots of this empowered class’s existence.
As a result, it is commonplace that people of all sorts literally take for granted that some people are born to make decisions and other people are born to obey. This seems to most observers to be foreordained and written in stone. And this belief, so prevalent that it doesn’t even need to be enunciated, is not unlike, a half century ago, most people thinking that women had no capacity beyond serving husbands and birthing children, or that blacks had no capacity beyond using muscles to obey orders. The class analog is to think that people who assemble things, tend tables, drive busses, carry boxes, and on and on, have no capacity for doing more varied, more complex, more empowering tasks, and that those who do more varied, more complex, more empowering tasks are intrinsically suited to them.
The social cause of the class division between the empowered coordinator class and the disempowered working class is hidden by an assumption of high capacity for the former and lack of capacity for the later, just as the division between Black and white, say, or male and female, has also been thought to be born of different intrinsic capacities and not imposed by contingent structures.
Okay, so, if the misconception that the different circumstances, incomes, and power of the working class on the one hand, and of the coordinator class on the other hand, come from differentiations in intrinsic capacities rather than being imposed by institutions is prevalent, the lack of attention to the contrary idea is no longer so hard to understand. Proposing the existence and importance of the coordinator class and expecting a serious hearing becomes almost like telling your associates that trees can fly and expecting them to take time off from all their other pursuits to examine your claim and then support it.
The claim about a third critically important socially created class, in other words, is off the charts for people and not worth any consideration because to most people, including progressives, it appears so utterly ludicrous especially to those who are in or aspiring to be in the zone between labor and capital. Of course, the fact that this mindset corresponds to the self image needed by coordinator class members to justify their advantages and to feel good about themselves even as they benefit from unjust monopolization of empowering work, and that it even corresponds to working class members looking for ways to simply survive their disadvantages without exploding into furious anger in a context where options for fighting back are horribly limited, both drive and abet the tendency to rule out such a perspective – just as once in the past, similar mindsets and interests made many people dismiss arguments about the positive capacities of women and minorities as ridiculous.
Likewise, and finally, the fact that the coordinator class occupies positions of power vis a vis media and communications, not just managing the factory floor or arguing legal cases, or doing surgeries, but also controlling what is and what isn’t widely communicated in society‘s media, including in our own progressive media, means media is overwhelmingly closed to exploring this class issue, partly as a matter of material and social self defense, and partly as a matter of manifesting deep rooted self serving assumptions.
Fifty years ago white and male leftists, at the heads of various kinds of movement organizations and structures, resisted efforts to elevate discussions of racial hierarchy and gender hierarchy. Partly they were simply defending their positions, honestly believing that they were doing great work and that replacements would not. And partly they were simply acting on reflex, expressing ingrained assumptions. Fifty years later such racism and sexism isn’t entirely gone on the left, but it is vastly diminished. In contrast, on the class axis, the parallel dynamic persists virtually untouched. Working people serve coordinator class leaders even inside our organizations, to the extent working people bother participating in their own subordination at all.
Hearing the above, you might reply, like the interviewer, “Okay, so how does your analysis relate to current events? What, for example, does it tell us about Brexit and Trump? Why are so many working people seemingly turning away from progressive politics?” How would you reply to such questions?
My own answer is that there are many factors and variables at play, of course. But one pretty simple one which comes into play almost all the time including in these cases, seems to me to be whether progressive politics is believable to working people. Suppose a mafia boss comes to town and claims he will raise the well being of everyone by his policies if you will only give him free space to do as he chooses. The words taken alone may well ring wonderful. If he accomplishes what he claims, it will be excellent. But you would probably say no, I won’t support the mafia boss, because i don’t trust fancy rhetoric. I don’t trust that he will do as he says. I believe, instead, he will do what the mafia always does in pursuit of mafia gain.
Okay, so what if a clear cut emissary of a class that daily dominates you in ways that of late have been getting steadily worse comes to town and says he or she will serve not his or her class, or even higher classes still further up, but you. You have grave doubts. What if someone else comes along, and he is really rich too, or even richer, but he is the only other choice and he sounds more like you. He seems to empathize better. He carries less official baggage you are aware of. His promises seem to you more believable and to go much further. And so on. The rejection of mildly progressive policies when they don’t register as honest shouldn’t be too surprising. To gravitate toward abstention seems obvious, and has been predominant for ages. To gravitate, instead, toward monstrous views requires further explanation – but not too much more explanation if the monster does a great job of appearing to be other than he is regarding what you take to be central concerns. We have seen that often, too. And if the monster marshals fear and hate effectively that will add to his momentum, of course. And we have seen that too.
What would have been different if Sanders had run in the U.S. instead of Clinton? I think the main thing would have been that far more people – on all sides – would have believed he meant what he said. Which, indeed, I think would have been true. With Clinton, far fewer people thought she meant any of the progressive stuff, so much fewer that in certain states, she lost, and as a result she lost the overall electoral college election.
Again, lots of variables were operating, but one, which was clearly visible I think, was many voters’ justified distrust of and even anger and hostility toward the coordinator class and its culture and dismissiveness. To have that be the lying emissary of progressive politics causes the latter to lose legitimacy by the association.
This has been occurring for a long time, especially in the US., but elsewhere too. Left ideas can reach into diverse race and gender communities, yet not as much into working class communities including blacks and women in the working class – and this analysis says one reason for that could be that class conscious anti-coordinatorist working people find the left unattractive precisely and sadly, and very often accurately due to its coordinatorist dismissiveness toward working people.
The British interviewer here went from description to prescription, asking, “Are the current structures of progressive organizations in line with the kind of values and goals we espouse? “What does this say about the current structures that dominate progressive political organizations? How might we organize in a way that brings about the changes we say we want?”
These are good questions, rarely asked. My own rely is I think to be in line with our most worthy values our institutions need to be feminist, anti racist, anti authoritarian, and also anti classist, not just in words, but in their very definition and structure. This is both so they would lead toward our full goals, but also so they would appropriately respect, involve, and empower all potential present day allies, not alienate and exclude or mistreat them.
Movements have tried very consciously and with considerable though so far incomplete success to pursue the racial and gender parts of the needed agenda, but movements have been rather poorer about the class parts of that agenda, most often not even trying, at least regarding coordinator class dominance over workers.
Too often our efforts still utilize internal divisions of labor as well as decision making methods that are coordinatorist and that thus say to workers, this movement really isn’t about your liberation. This movement elevates others above you. This movement leads somewhere you don’t want to go, and treats you as subordinate along the way. This movement is not your movement.
It seems to me the answer to how to organize more successfully is to do so in ways that foreshadow and are consistent with attaining feminist, anti racist, self managing, and also classless goals.
Regarding being classless, I think the main step is to not only structure movements and define responsibilities so that working people are able to fully participate at every level, and in every aspect, but also so that internal training and roles elevate working class members while also combatting the presumptions of coordinator class members.
Trump was elected in 2016, and it could happen again in 2020. People wonder why, what went wrong. People, including serious leftists, offer answers. Almost without exception the answers point to faults and failings of others then the person offering them.
Consider a serious activist who has been active for a decade or two or even five. Which such activist says for all to hear, well, our feminist work, our anti racist work, our peace work, our ecology work, or, most of all, our anti corporate, anti capitalist work, has not successfully reached far enough…we have not done our job well enough?
Pointing at mainstream parties, at mainstream media, at segments of progressives other than ourselves as cause of the recent horrors, all that has some logic, to be sure. But what about admitting that something about our own radical approaches, our own radical words, our own radical styles, our own radical organizations has prevented our affecting huge numbers of working people even enough so they wouldn’t support vile insanity, much less enough so they would be by now actively participating in and leading progressive and revolutionary agendas? And yet, if we want to win, aren’t our own choices where we need to look most closely for what we can change in order to do better? Isn’t that, in fact, obvious?
By way of conclusion, for those who wish to take the idea of a third class between labor and capital further and in particular to consider its broader implications for seeking a better world – perhaps consider this.
If we see and highlight two classes, we will tend to see and highlight two economic and social systems in competition – one elevating the owning capitalist class – one elevating workers and eliminating the ownership relations imposing a class above it.
In contrast, if we see and highlight three classes, we will tend to see and highlight three economic and social systems in competition – one elevating the owning capitalist class – one elevating the empowered coordinator class with no owning class above it – and one elevating workers and eliminating the ownership relations and the division of labor and allocation system imposing two classes above it.
And, indeed, that third system is precisely the one that earlier episodes of RevolutionZ described and that has guided almost all the episodes – classless participatory economics and self managing, feminist, intercommunalist, classless, participatory society.
The first of three is capitalism, which we endure.
The second of three is called by many market socialism or centrally planned socialism, but is really more accurately called coordinatorism.
Reject one and two – seek the third.
That said, I hope you will consider podcasts like this one helpful, and that you will in return help give RevolutionZ greater visibility by promoting it to people you encounter, through social media, or however else you choose. Doing or not doing that bears directly on the question asked earlier – why does a three class approach receive relatively little attention – though growing of late. And I also hope that you will visit our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/RevolutionZ and provide us some material aid as well.
And, so finally, this is Michal Albert, signing off for RevoutionZ.