Class Barriers to Change: Capitalist Lackeys or Coordinator Interests?

I recently read a very interesting article by Paul Kivel called, "Social Service or Social Change?"i In it he looks at the role of social service and social change in America, arguing that most of the time they are not the same, and, in fact, social service institutions are usually resistant to social change. He goes into how work can be co-opted, especially through non-profits, and then offers suggestions on how to battle against co-optation and remain accountable to the constituencies you are trying to help. All of his analysis is first situated in the economic/political structure of the United States. It is here—the way he defines and divides the United States’ economic class structure—that I have a fundamental disagreement with his presentation, and, I think, it influences his analysis, rendering it not as effective as it could be, as well as misleading. However, I do not intend to try and pick apart his entire essay based on my analysis of the economic structure that we live in; instead, I intend to address broadly why using a different class analysis—particularly recognizing the existence of a coordinator class—is important in the context of fighting for social change—the underlying theme of his piece. Furthermore, I did not single him, or this essay, out in particular. It is just representative of a greater problem of class analysis among social justice organizers. For the most part, his essay is still a great contribution in many respects. 

Kivel depicts the United State economic structure to be a pyramid "in which 1% of the population controls about 47% of the net financial wealth of the country, and the next 19% of the population controls another 44%" leaving "80% of the population struggling to gain a share of just 9% of the remaining financial wealth." According to Kivel, the top two classes constitute the owning classes—the 1% being the ruling class and the 19% being the managerial class. The bottom 80% is never given a name but stated as "the rest of us." This group "produces the social wealth that those at the top benefit from."
It is comprised of those that "work in the factories, fields, classrooms, homes, sweatshops, hospitals, restaurants, small businesses, behind the phones, behind the desks, behind the wheel, and behind the counter, doing the things that keep our society functioning and productive. "

Within this economic pyramid framework, he also identifies another area—the buffer zone—that consists of some people in the managerial class but most come from the upper strata of the 80%
. This group of people has occupations that are supposed to take care of the people on the bottom of the pyramid. They channel social work activity into mere service work, avoiding conducting it in a manner that would foster and encourage social change, and at the same time, keep a sense of hope alive that anyone can "make it" if they try hard enough. Basically, in his analysis, these jobs feed off and perpetuate the institutional arrangements of oppression that affect the constituencies they are supposedly helping. Instead of fostering the empowerment of battered women to actually change their oppressive relationships in a concrete and institutional way, for example (an example he goes into), non-profits and government agencies focusing on this issue will play a reactionary role of merely providing post-incident care. And in doing so, those workers occupying these social work positions are not laying the framework necessary for solutions, and in many cases, can be part of the problem by having a vested interest in the cycle of abuse. If there is no abuse, there is no more work for them.

Kivel then offers some recommendations to combat this dynamic, focusing on the difference between service work and activity that can actually foster self-organization that can challenge the power structures and lead to social change.In this aspect, there is much to gain from his insights on what kind of activity is needed for social change. However, as I stated before, the way he demarcates these economic classes and groups is flawed, which has a profound impact on understanding the nature and interests of these groups, and therefore paths to collective liberation.
The underlying problem is the implied definition of what constitutes an economic class. The divides in his economic pyramid are drawn based on the level of financial wealth controlled, and he makes a distinction between the type of work done by those controlling the wealth. The ruling class 1% seems to be what would be considered those whose wealth merely comes from owning assets, whereas the next 19% occupy high-level managerial positions; and the 80% consists of non-managerial workers andsmall business owners.However, the managerial class is grouped in with the ruling class as part of the owning classes. Furthermore, the economic role of the managerial class and the buffer zone is said to administer those below them and only serve the interests of the ruling class—the 1%. By using control over financial wealth as the main indicator for demarcating classes, and as a result, relegating what he calls the managerial class and buffer zone to solely administers for capitalist rule, is the flaw of his class analysis; this has many ramifications for his overall analysis: 1) This framework fails to understand (or at least communicate) why and how the top 20%, as well as the sections of the buffer zone in the 80%, are able to gain their wealth; 2) it fails to properly identify what factors warrant calling a group a class, which leads to ignoring the existence of the coordinator class, putting some people in the wrong class, and ignores the nature of a "middle element;" 3) and in doing so, it is unable to see the possibility of another class besides the current "ruling class" becoming a ruling class in their absence—which would still be a small portion of the population—resulting in a new economic mode of production that is not capitalist. When I come to address point 3, it will be clearer on how my alternate class analysis would affect his analysis of social service versus social change; however, remember that my purpose is not to specifically scrutinize the topic of social service versus social change. It is to look at the greater problem of incorrect class analysis and how this affects our path to social change and achieving a liberated and participatory society..
OK, so what is a class? A class is a group of people that has shared interests, circumstances, and powers by virtue of its on-going position in the functioning of the economy—which results in it forming its own psychology, culture, and consciousness, giving it the ability to act autonomously from other classes. Furthermore, they have the ability to ultimately shape the economic relations in their favor and become a ruling class (Notice there is nothing here about how much money someone makes, though this is a function of one’s class). So based on this definition, what are the classes in the United States (and every other advanced capitalist country), and how are these different from those Kivel lists?
First, given my definition of class, Kivel’s economic pyramid becomes quite blurry, which is going to force me to extrapolate classes from his framework in a way that is not stated by him, but is based on the implications of using my definition. So, let’s start with his "owning classes" where 91% of the wealth is held. Since he states that the managerial class only acts to preserve ruling class capitalist interests, norms, and rule, by my definition and his description of their role, they would not be a class. Therefore, his class analysis really falls into the classic incorrect two class belief that there are only capitalists and workers, with groups like the managerial "class" merely being a privileged strata of workers (For the sake of later clarification of classes, I will refer to Kivel’s managerial class as the "managerial sector"). This class distinction is based on the fact that capitalists own productive property and workers don’t, forcing workers to sell their labor and work for capitalists. Now, when one looks at his attention to the subjugation of those below the managerial sector and the fact that this sector controls a great deal of wealth, I think he really wants to make this a class, but using his definition of it, it would not be.
Then how is this managerial sector able to control so much wealth and position itself so much higher than other non-capitalists? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the capitalists do need them to administer the workers and operations of their enterprises because there are so few capitalists, as Kivel states (Also, capitalists would rather earn income by virtue of the fact that they own productive assets and not do much actual work). The other part, however, is that capitalists need them because they have a relative monopoly of the knowledge and skills that capitalists are seeking for their enterprises. And because of this monopoly, they have more bargaining power and are able to extract more income and decision-making power from capitalists; hence why a section of the managerial sector controls so much financial wealth. Also, by virtue of this position in the economy the managerial sector enjoys more fulfilling and empowering work, while workers for the most part endure rote, onerous, and disempowering tasks. Additionally, they tend to have an antagonism towards both capitalists and workers. They defend their skill, knowledge, and authority against workers below them, and fight to gain more wealth, autonomy, and bargaining power from the capitalists above them. These are the doctors, high level managers, lawyers, engineers, many of the social service professionals Kivel talks about, and more. They also set up organizations to ensure their relative monopoly and protect their status. For example, doctors have the American Medical Association—whose major function is to prevent nurses from practicing medicine; and lawyers have the Bar Association, which also ensures that only those Bar certified can practice law . Both organizations set barriers to entry and other restrictions solidifying that workers below them will not have access to the same opportunities. Of course, however, some typical coordinators like lawyers and doctors can also be capitalists, though generally this is not the case.
Moreover, in looking at my description of the managerial sector in conjunction with my definition of class, something interesting happens. This managerial sector is indeed a third class, separate from capitalists and workers. This is the coordinator class. Now, in light of identifying this new class, the nature of the buffer zone also changes. First, some of those lumped into the buffer zone would, in fact, be part of the coordinator class. This section would have a relatively high degree of control over the workers below them and control over conceptualizing and implementing their own work; and they can extract higher incomes, though maybe not as high as others in the coordinator class. Like any other class, there are strata within each. Second, the buffer zone would not merely be serving the interests of capitalists. It now can be classified as a "middle element" or "contradictory middle strata" whose allegiance and interests fluctuate between coordinators and workers, having much in common with both. Certain teachers, social workers, nurses, and technicians would fall into this middle element. Again, the important distinction is that ultimately this middle element’s consciousness and interests—whether they align with coordinators or workers—can be independent from capitalists.ii
The new economic pyramid now looks like this: 1-2 percent capitalist, 15-25 percent coordinator, 70-80 percent worker, with a sizable middle element oscillating between worker and coordinator class.
Recapping what has been laid out, I made the case that there are three main classes in the the Unites States (and other advanced capitalist countries)—capitalists, coordinators, and workers—with a notable contradictory middle strata between workers and coordinators. The effect that this class analysis has on social change lies in the fact that coordinators have the ability to become the new ruling class in a post-capitalist economy, which will have a coordinator mode of production to the detriment of workers. This will come in the form of state ownership of productive property, hierarchical division of labor, and either markets or central planning. This means that coordinators can be explicitly anticapitalist but not necessarily be for worker self-management and classlessness. Realizing this has a profound effect on social movement orientation and strategy.
Applying the latter point to Kivel’s analysis of how much social work co-opts social change, it is crucial to understand that this is not always capitalist co-optation by their minions below them. It can also be coordinators, and coordinator allying middle elements, trying to find technocratic and paternalistic solutions to problems that would elevate themselves to a position of power. In many cases, they could be explicitly against the interests of capitalists. Though his suggestions for combating capitalist co-optation are very similar to what I propose to battle coordinator co-optation—empowering workers and other oppressed groups to self-organize—the failure to identify the coordinator class presents a fundamental barrier to doing so; if you don’t acknowledge that something exists, then you can’t properly defend against it. Therefore, if the coordinator class is not on anticapitalists’ class map, we run the risk of having a coordinator class dominated movement and a coordinator ruled post-capitalist economy.
For example, Kivel’s main strategy for battling co-optation is for those doing social work to be accountable to the constituencies they are supposed to serve—an excellent suggestion. He states, "Being accountable implies a cohesive or coherent community to be accountable to. Few such communities exist in our society and even fewer of us are connected to them. I believe that being accountable means nurturing and supporting the growth and stability of cohesive communities." Here I completely agree. He then poses a question (one of many), "Are you helping them come together for increased consciousness, resource sharing, and empowerment?" Again, this is something that should be on all social justice organizers’ minds when doing work; however, if these otherwise helpful insights are given within the context that it’s the capitalists versus the rest of us, then it becomes problematic. It’s fine and dandy to be "accountable" to working class and oppressed people, but what about the structures that elevate coordinators and middle element workers above others in the first place—the hierarchal division of labor and various methods of socialization that prepare people to enter into class positions?
Even in the context of "nurturing and supporting the growth and stability of cohesive communities," we cannot keep the institutional framework that systematically places a minority of people in these service positions where they have the relative monopolization of the skills, knowledge, connections, resources, and empowerment that allow them to offer service. In other words, its not only about relating better to one another as individuals and/or groups. The institutions and relations need to be transformed and supplanted. Otherwise, communities can be empowered all they want, but a coordinator class will still exist that has interests opposed to them and will fight to protect those interests. I think Kivel would join me in opposing this, but it is impossible to concretely do so without recognizing the problem.
Beyond recognizing the problem, if we want to have a classless economy after we replace capitalism (and we will!), we need to have a vision of an economy that will not elevate coordinators above all others. If we know what we don’t want—a coordinator ruled economy—and we know what we do want—a self-managed, participatory economy for all workers—then we must be intentional about it. Just as capitalists and coordinators have institutions that will ensure their rule, we need to outline institutions that will ensure the elimination of class hierarchies and will be complementary and part of the liberation of all oppressed people. Therefore, after we rid ourselves of the private ownership of productive property, which is the main basis for capitalist rule, and replace it with social ownership of productive property and council democracy, we must also rid ourselves of institutions that will result in coordinator rule. That means we must also get rid of markets and central planning, replacing them with participatory planning where all actors in the economy can have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree they’re effected. However, if we don’t do away with the hierarchal division of labor, coordinators will still rule; so we must balance jobs for empowerment. And, finally, people should get an equitable piece of the economic pie (income) based on the intensity, duration, and onerousness of their work—their effort and sacrifice. Only then, will we have a truly solidaristic, diverse, efficient, equitable, green, and self-managed economy free of the capitalist and coordinator class.
On the way to achieving a participatory economy, our social movements and organizations should try and prefigure the institutions we want to eventually win, as much as possible. This has tremendous implications. Institutions that want to help meet the needs of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid and empower them to create social change should not be structured like Microsoft, which is often the case. There should not be a set of leaders that remain fixed by virtue of them already possessing high levels of knowledge and skills; rather, there needs to be a focus of the leadership development of all, especially those on the bottom end of oppressive hierarchiesiii. Also, as we possibly enter into a period of reform, we must favor reforms that give everyday people more control over the resources and institutions around them.
Kivel’s essay certainly warrants a serious look, especially his insights on accountability. However, his class analysis is problematic. It neglects a key actor in the economy—the coordinator class—resulting in an economic outlook that ignores the possibility of a new economy ruled by coordinators. Certainly, this would not be on the agenda of those seeking the liberation of oppressed people, as Kivel does. This class blunder is still widespread amongst social justice organizers and anticapitalists. The time has come where being anticapitalist is just not good enough. We must be ardently pro-working class liberation and for classlessness. An important step towards realizing a strategy and world that will mirror such a vision—a participatory economy and society—is first to identify one of its greatest barriers and opponents—the coordinator class. It’s time to give class another look.
John J. Cronan Jr. lives in New York City, where he is restaurant worker and and organizer. He organizes with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), as well as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Food and Allied Workers Union I.U. 460/640. He can be reached at jcronan.iww@gmail.com .
i Kivel, Paul. "Social Service or Social Change?" http://paulkivel.com/articles/socialserviceorsocialchange.pdf . He wrote this is 2000. However, it was recently reprinted in The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex, ed. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Boston: South End Press, 2007).
iiFor a more in-depth look at the class structure I’ve laid out, read Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s, "A Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map," in Between Labor and Capital, ed. Pat Walker (Boston: South End Press, 1979).
iii Regarding building a movement conducive to working class people, check out my essay in Chris Spannos’ recently released book, Real Utopia (Oakland: AK Press, 2008). Also, for a look at the importance of combating oppressions in other spheres of social life and the entwinement of these spheres, see my article, "Building a Liberatory Labor Movement." http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3300

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